Monday, July 06, 2009

Boot Camp, Brussels Sprouts, and Writing– oh, my!

The following blog has way too many metaphors. That’s probably because I have had SUCH A HARD TIME WRITING over the last 5 months. : )


I’m in boot camp – climbing up steep hills while carrying artillery, traversing various obstacle courses, and marching until my feet bleed. I do this in sleet, rain, snow, sunshine– no matter the weather. I get up at dawn and work until dusk. I know that the goal of boot camp is survival. That’s it. Nothing else. Just survive. You don’t have to look pretty or smell good. Just get through it–alive.

I have been in boot camp for these last several months, my first semester of the MFA program at Pine Manor College, and am emerging battle weary. But, thankfully, it’s over, and I’m about to attend residency number two to kick start semester two. So, as a send off and farewell to the semester that was, I give you my parting thoughts.


Our program is a rigorous study made up of five 10-day residencies (over a 2.5 year period). Upon arrival home from residency, students begin their independent study, which involves turning in five packets of work, spaced out about a month each– 25 pages of creative and about 10 pages of critical writing (literary analysis)– to a mentor, who is a professional author as well as someone who has been through the same rigorous study (with their own MFA).


I went into the program looking forward to working on my creative writing . I finally could justify the hours and hours I spent at Starbucks drinking tea and clacking on the keyboard. I could tell my husband, “But I have to write today–it’s homework!” I specifically wanted to focus on a short story collection that I have been kicking around for a few years. Short stories are much harder for me than novels, which I can bang out in a few months. So, I looked forward to having a teacher help me hone my short story writing.

I pictured myself churning out story after story and my mentor giving me life-changing advice. I pictured us simpatico. I also was convinced that everything he or she was going to tell me would be THE THING that changed my writing. That I would grow and expand. That I would be humbled by my own growth and expansion. The skies would part and my writing Savior would arrive in flowing robes with an ethereal glow. As for the critical writing, I figured it would be necessary but not really a lot of fun. That I would, as my five-year-old daughter does with her vegetables, get that over with first and move on to my “just desserts"– my creative writing.


However, as life sometimes goes, I did not get my “just desserts”.

What actually happened was with each packet I turned in, I felt more and more depressed about my own writing. Worse though was that my “just desserts” turned out to NOT be my creative work. Working on my creative work was like being forced to eat the most dreaded vegetable ever–Brussels sprouts.

By the second packet, I wanted to just focus on the critical writing. Let me just keep reading other people’s stuff. Let me focus on how they succeed or fail in their story-telling. By the final packet, I actually pondered quitting the program and getting my PHD in English Lit…That would be so much easier than an MFA. Really. I think it would be. What gut-wrenching-muscle-aching effort is it to analyze other people’s work? Hell, I do that for a living anyway. I’m an English teacher by training. Teacher/tutor/coach by trade. Piece of cake. Almost effortless. Like breathing. Actually, I realized by semester’s end, it’s kind of fun, too. Really, it’s so much easier focusing on other people’s shit, right? It’s kind of removed because it’s not about you, so you can kind of relish in the severity of your analysis. Relish in how much you dissected it, relish in the decoding of it all, like you took apart the VCR and actually figured out how to put it back together.


It was the feedback.

With each letter of feedback on my writing I struggled. I struggled to figure out what to do with the feedback and how to do whatever it is I needed to do. With each packet, I would work furiously revising and rewriting based on the notes given. But it was like running up Mt. Washington, without sneakers, without water–hell , without clothes. In the rain. Eating Brussels sprouts.

This shocked me. I wanted feedback. That’s why I signed up for an MFA.

So, what happened?


Traditionally, in a class, you have your fellow classmates to commiserate with or to at least bounce things off of, you have other people to encourage you when you feel like giving up–someone other than your teacher. In a class, you have other students to talk you off the cliff when the teacher tells you that you got it all wrong and have to start over. Not that my mentor said those words exactly, but, unfortunately, that’s how I heard the words. I kept hearing, “You’re wrong. You’re ideas suck. You’re stories are vapid. You. Suck. A. Lot.” Again, she NEVER SAID THAT. But I heard that in my head. So, while she may have been criticizing my ideas and my writing, she never told me to pack it in. To forget it because I’m a no-talent asshole. But, again, that’s what I heard.

This same psychological phenomenon happens sometimes with my students–particularly when they are new (as I am to the MFA program): I will give some feedback that’s rather critical–not about them as writers or human beings but about their story or essay– and the look on the student’s face says, “You just completely ran me over with a large Mack Truck and now I am barely alive.” Not only will I notice this slack mouth, half-alive, barely able to inhale look but so will the rest of the students in the class. This is their cue to chime in: “Your story is great! You are such an awesome writer! Just a few more tweaks and this draft will sparkle.” Sometimes my students will come right out and say, “Hannah didn’t just tell you that you sucked, okay? She said that you just need to fix a few things.” Also, quite frankly, teachers aren’t perfect. Sometimes they say things in not the most gentle way, and it can hurt. Having other students around can be good for translation purposes.

Being the teacher, even if you are as I am, not on some kind of self-proclaimed pedestal of all-knowingness, you are in a position of authority. Therefore, no matter what you say– good or bad– it really affects the student. Deeply, intensely, and completely. So, to reduce the intensity and the shock of feedback from the teacher, students need one another. Being in a residency program, you don’t get that immediate support from your peers because you are truly on your own with your mentor. I guess I could have reached out to my classmates but that would have been through email, and I’m not sure how it would have been received if I emailed them and said, “I JUST GOT MY LETTER FROM MY MENTOR AND NOW I WANT TO HANG MYSELF. SO HOW ARE YOU?”

Instead, what I did was not say ANYTHING (although my mentor did sense things weren’t going that great with me and my writing). And, if you know me well, you know I can’t do this, at least without causing some severe anxiety and depression. So after I got my letter of feedback, I would just sort of try and do exactly as my mentor advised, without sitting with the feedback and really processing it. Then, I would get frustrated and feel like some of her feedback didn’t resonate. That maybe she wasn’t understanding what I was trying to do, and hell, maybe I wasn’t conveying what I wanted to do to her because maybe I was still evolving my idea…I think, worse of all, I didn’t pick up the phone and call her and tell her how I was feeling. That was truly stupid because see, I wasn’t alone. I did have her. That’s what she was there for, support and encouragement, just as much as she was there to critique.

It’s also vital to the mentoring/critiquing process that the student give the teacher feedback– that there’s a dialogue between teacher and student about the work. Because the work evolves. It isn’t just– poof! There it is. Feedback cannot occur in a vacuum because writing a story is a creative process, which is not formulaic or linear but circular at times. Crafting a story can be confusing, like when you have one of those thin chains that gets tangled up in itself and you have to carefully work out the knots, sometimes with a pin and it takes a while to figure out how exactly to untie the knot. So, if someone is critiquing your story as it is evolving, when it isn’t ready for a critique, a dialogue between writer and critiquer is vital.


What I’m figuring out here in this blog is that I wish there had been more time to talk. Talk about the work I was creating or rather the process I was experiencing with the creation of the work. The other problem was at the beginning of the semester my mentor suggested I do a loose outline of my project. So I did, hating every minute of it because I wasn’t quite ready to do that. Did I tell her this? Nope. I just was the good little student and did it. Then, I assumed I had to follow the outline. Except, I didn’t want to, so I really didn’t.

Additionally, there was a story I was working on, and it wasn’t really fully formed in my head, but I had to send her what I was working on, so I would try really hard to “figure it out” so I could answer her very valid questions about it. What I wanted to tell her was… “I’m not sure yet what I want to do with this.” But, again, I didn’t so…I tried to do what I thought she wanted me to do with it and…it turned into a mess and I got very sad. I wanted to dream and write and enjoy this wonderful opportunity to write . Yet, I constantly felt like there was a certain expectation on her part, and I wasn’t hitting it.

There was way too much struggle, and this was new for me. I have never had a struggle like this with my creative writing.

But the thing is…I felt like maybe she wasn’t understanding me, and I wasn’t really understanding her. See, this is all stuff we could have discussed. Should have discussed. But we didn’t. And it’s that that I truly regret.


Thus, with all that struggle, I feel sore. Tired. Weary. Like I did boot camp or climbed that frigging mountain. I ignored my feelings/reactions to the feedback letters. I kept telling myself I was too sensitive and had to “get over it”. I felt sad, I hurt, my muscles ached, and I seemed to wake up sore everyday. It felt like one long intense workout with out rest, like a marathon or something. One that just kept going and going.

But, I wasn’t in boot camp with a drill sergeant. I was a mentee in an MFA program that urges the student to communicate with their mentor about how things are going, really going, even if they are going really, bad.



I know I have an abundance of metaphors here– see how my writing is suffering now! ? : ) But both metaphors describe what it has been like to do my creative writing this semester. It’s like eating Brussels sprouts while traversing some kind of boot camp obstacle course that involves climbing up a steep mountain, naked.


Yet, I do not want to give up. I want to go through this process of intense study and writing. But how do I stop struggling? My muse is not struggle. It’s like how I feel about my study of yoga– “release into the resistance” is what one of my yoga teacher’s tells us. That and “lay down your arms”. Oh and this good one, “trust your process”. I just have to accept these yicky feelings. Stop struggling and accept where I am. Be in the moment and just sit down, one key at a time, and write.

Also, maybe I should try Brussels sprouts one more time?

1 comment:

Joanne Carnevale said...

I can't even imagine what this must be like, but please do keep your eyes on the prize. When you look back after accomplishing your goal it will all seem worthwhile.