Ten Reasons I am Grateful for AWP

This week I attended my second AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) annual conference in Washington, D.C.  Here are ten reasons why I am grateful for this experience:

  1. Meeting writers and editors in person who I only knew through blogging and social media such as, Allison K Williams (read my post about her amazing book, Get Published in Literary Magazines) and Kim Brown, aka The Confident Writer, who is also the Founder and Editor of Minerva Rising Press and Donna Talarico, the founder and editor of Hippocampus Magazine that will be publishing an essay of mine in March.
  2. Getting great advice. Like, if you get a personal rejection, be grateful. A personal rejection means your work was read and considered. Don’t follow up on that personal rejection, though, by asking for more feedback. Editors are too busy for that. (Whoops.) Also, wait three days before emailing the editor you met at the bar. I got this piece of advice just in time. Otherwise overeager, stalker-Teri would have emailed the editor seconds after returning to my hotel room. SO GREAT TO MEET YOU!!!! #willyoupublishme?
  3. Learning about amazing women in literature you should know but whose words simply haven’t graced your path like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. Read Lorde’s poem “Power” and Rich’s poem “What Kind of Times Are These.”
  4. The chance to get to know editors, strike up conversation, and realize they are not just critics who reject your work, but real people who have hopes and dreams too. One editor I met invests her own money to keep the dream of her independent journal alive (which, I realize, is probably not uncommon.)
  5. The chance to pass out the super cute cards you made on MOO.com with your contact info and blog address.
  6. AWP discounts that help you subscribe to new journals such as Under the Gum Tree, Fourth Genre, Kenyon Review, and Rock & Sling. I also subscribed to the Journal of the Month to familiarize myself with new journals.
  7. Inspiring readings that give you the itch to write.
  8. A few hours to write in a quiet hotel room.
  9. The chance to be a good literary citizen and blog about an AWP panel for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. I’ll be blogging about the panel “Following the Thread of Thought” moderated by Steven Harvey (The Humble Essayist). It was an excellent panel about reflective essay writing that included wise words from Phillip Lopate, author of “To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.
  10. The chance to get your picture taken with Phillip Lopate.

    Teri (excited fan girl) with Phillip Lopate

    Teri (excited fan girl) with Phillip Lopate

Writing to Discover

6281142155_e8a8afcddb_oIn an essay I am writing about my son I am discovering just how much I love my children. This feels odd to write because of course I already know that I love my children. But as I challenge myself to go deeper in this essay, to be more truthful, to choose words that resonate with emotions that I rarely bring to the surface, I am discovering the power of this art I have chosen (or perhaps has chosen me.)

Yesterday, I hit a raw vein of truth—namely, the fear I bury that something bad will happen to my children. I imagine all parents hold this fear and bury it deep. It’s not an emotion we can live with on the surface or else we’d never let our children out the door in the morning, let alone get on that big yellow school bus which is sure to be full of bullies. I climbed into my fear yesterday, though, as I sat at my desk with my notepad and pen and picked that fear raw to see what was living there. Why would I do this? Why subject myself to such torture? Well, I guess because I’m learning that emotions are not to be avoided. The feelings our hearts yield are signs pointing us towards truth waiting to be discovered—truth about who we are, how we are, and how we relate to the world. I learn so much when I honor my emotions enough to sit with them.

Out of the raw place of fear that I mined yesterday, the love I hold for my children overcame me like a wave grabbing and ripping me away from the safety of shore. It was a love that moved so far beyond the healthy lunches I pack every night and the grass-stained clothes I endlessly launder and the good night cuddles I linger over. It was a love that hurt—a love that physically gripped me—a love that clearly needed to be safely managed and stored back away so it wouldn’t devour and consume me. Good God, now I know what it means to call love a risk. Because to lose the source of this love—like many parents I know have—would be near impossible to survive.

Writing brought all this to the surface for me. I walked around for the rest of the day with my unsurfaced love jangling about like a bundle of unplugged chords. Then, my children came home from school and I was extra attentive. I stroked their little blond heads. I bathed them tenderly, relishing the chance to wash the day’s dirt and sweat and crumbs and routine chocolate smears off their growing-up-too-fast bodies. I kissed them and hugged them and clung to them before tucking them into their beds and thanking God that, for the moment, they were safe.

I don’t want to live in fear. Because that’s not really living. But I do want to live awakened, alive to the emotions that drive me and the truth that can be uncovered, or recovered, when I am willing to honor all that is inside. Writing is the path that takes me there. What path do you choose?

 

[Feature Image: Ramiro Ramirez]

 

Iowa City Inspiration

I just returned from a quick overnight trip to Iowa City.  There are many things I love about this city.  Like….

People playing outside pianos.

People playing outside pianos.

Children frolicking in fountains.

Children frolicking in fountains.

Inspiring Art Everywhere

Inspiring Art Everywhere

Great Food! Yum!

Great Food! Yum!

But the real reason I return to Iowa City every summer is the way it inspires my writing.  Today I attended a free lecture by Juliet Patterson, “Alternative Fuel Sources: Powering the Non-narrative Essay.”  I was interested in the topic since my sermons and writing are typically narrative driven.  What other tools might I use to drive an essay or a message?

Patterson encouraged us to capitalize on our organic strengths as writers.  She’s not a storyteller.  She’s a lyric poet.  So she’s more comfortable describing scenes in specific detail and focusing on the cadence of her words than on a particular narrative. The risk of writing like this–writing a lyric essay–is that it can be lifeless is there is no drama, arc or plot.  (I can think of a lot of lifeless sermons I’ve heard that fit this description.)  You have to build a scaffolding for what you’re writing.  Oftentimes that comes through the plot of a narrative, but Patterson suggested other alternatives such as images, a refrain (a repeated line or two to return to throughout the piece to ground the reader), or connecting small, seemingly disparate details, into a larger context of meaning.

To understand this way of driving a piece of prose, it was helpful to read the examples Patterson used in the lecture.  Here’s a picture of my notes on two excerpts she discussed.

Alternative Fuel Sources / Patterson 2015 Iowa Summer Writing Festival

Alternative Fuel Sources / Patterson
2015 Iowa Summer Writing Festival

The first excerpt by Joni Tevis uses the image of water / rain to create drama.   The song, “When the Levee Breaks,” provides the structure.  Tevis did a lot of research for this piece, which began (we learned) as a lifeless essay.  But the more research she did the more details, images, and ideas started to connect which made the piece come alive.

The second excerpt by John D’Agata’s “About a Mountain” really struck me.  It uses a refrain, “The life span of” to ground the reader.  But what is so stunning about this piece is about how it creates this aura of slippery-ness here.  Everything is slippery.  Everything slips away.  Even the sentences get shorter as the piece progresses.  D’Agata intentionally creates this aura of slippery-ness before introducing the subject of the book; nuclear waste.  A substance that does not slip away.  Ever.   This is a stunning piece of prose that doesn’t need a narrative to drive it.

After the lecture I went straight to the bookstore and bought two books highlighted by Patterson, “About a Mountain” by John D’Agata and “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” by Sarah Manguso that I hope to dig into this summer. Inspiration abounds in Iowa City!

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“About a Mountain” “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” and a fun book about farts for my 8 year old.

My Summer Priority–write, write, write

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Photo credit Ralph

People often don’t realize how hard those of us in an academic community work during the year. The enviable focus is on our summers “off”—which assumes a career of leisure in higher education. I am actually on a twelve-month contract, though, so I will go in to the office every day this June and July. But, with the students gone, the pace is slow, the surroundings deliciously quiet, and I can focus on goals and priorities that I rarely get to August through May.

June and July equal hope in my world. I start looking forward to these summer months in December, start planning what I will do with this time in January, make my reservations and pay my deposits by February. All this planning is what gets me through the incredibly hectic winter and spring that lies ahead.

This summer writing is my priority. Here’s a glimpse of my plan-of-action:

  • Online Classes: I’ve been considering taking some online writing classes as a convenient and fairly inexpensive way to challenge myself, get feedback, and generate new work. There are lots of places to take online writing classes. I’ve explored the Gotham Writer’s Workshops, The Loft, and Creative Nonfiction’s classes. I decided to sign up for Creative Nonfiction’s Summer Bootcamp because I like how they structured the class as well as the fact that it would require me to write and submit daily assignments. I am also taking a class on blogging (The Clumsy Blogger’s Workshop) that I discovered through the RevGalBlogPals community. I hope to learn more about utilizing the blog medium through this course and instill a good habit of writing and posting weekly. Remember that quote from John McPhee? “Writing teaches writing.”
  • Writing Conference: Every summer since moving to Illinois I have enjoyed a week at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival in Iowa City. This summer, though, a new conference caught my attention and I decided to sign up for it instead. This July I’ll be attending Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon. Kenyon College is known for its great writing program, which is what led me to explore what their summer institute offered. And when I found out that they were offering this week-long conference on spiritual writing with my favorite poet Marie Howe as one of the teachers—I was so there! I’m also really excited to meet Amy Frykholm from The Christian Century and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, The Velveteen Rabbi, who will also be teaching that week.
  • Reading for Writing: I cannot wait to dive into my books! I always have lots of books I want to read, but never enough time. So I try to be strategic and read books that serve a good purpose for me. I’m interested in reading different styles of writing—styles I might want to tackle myself some day. So here’s an incomplete list of the books I hope to read this summer and why:
  • Practice saying “No”: I used to think that I had to say, “Yes!” to every opportunity or else those opportunities would no longer keep coming.  Now, I know better.  Now, I know myself and my priorities better so I can discern whether or not an opportunity is worth acting upon.  Thomas Merton once said that the imagination should be allowed a certain amount of time to browse around.  June and July is this “browsing around” time for me and I plan on protecting it by saying “No” to any opportunity that doesn’t fit with this priority.  This way, come August, I can start saying “Yes” again.

Writing teaches writing

After reading this article by Ben Huberman at The Daily Post I clicked over to the Paris Review to read their full interview of John McPhee in a new series called “The Art of Nonfiction.” I always appreciate reading about the process of successful writers. Typically, I find myself inspired to write after reading how their craft evolved. The interview of McPhee did not disappoint in this regard.

McPhee’s description of writing a novel for his college thesis was what stoked my writing fire. His university had, as he said, “a great fight” over whether or not he would be allowed to write a novel for his thesis. No one had before. In the face of opposition, they finally allowed McPhee to proceed. This is how he described the experience:

They asked me to show up on the first day of senior year with thirty thousand words. So I spent the summer in Firestone Library, working in the English grad-study room, writing longhand on yellow pads. I had a real good time in there, working alongside these English grad students, all in various stages of suffering. I got my thirty thousand words done, and then I finished the thing over Christmas. It had a really good structure and was technically fine. But it had no life in it at all. One person wrote a note on it that said, You demonstrated you know how to saddle a horse. Now go find the horse.

But writing teaches writing. And I’ll tell you this, that summer in Firestone Library, I felt myself palpably growing as a writer. You just don’t sit there and write thirty thousand words without learning something.”

Writing teaches writing. That was the line that got me. So even though it was late (I don’t write well when it is late) I pulled out my notebook, set the timer on my Ipad for ten minutes and free wrote about a hospital visit that I recently made. The visit was a profound one—one of those pastoral visits that make you contemplate life, tragedy, and the meaning of it all. I knew I needed to write about it, but hadn’t yet made the time. McPhee inspired me to make the time.

More than anything, I want to learn and grow as a writer—not so much to publish more, or get more followers here on my little blog. But to help me make sense of this world in which we live and pay careful attention to it all.  I want to be able to articulate the experiences I have and find my way to new discoveries. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is through my writing. So, thank you, John McPhee, for tonight’s teaching.  I am better for it.