Save the Date: “Life After the MFA Panel” @ SMC 11/20/13

Interested in writing fellowships and residencies? Yours truly has been booked in advance to talk about recent fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and the International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland UK for Saint Mary’s College of California’s MFA Creative Writing Program Panel: “Life After the MFA” Wednesday, 20 November, 2:35pm, location on campus TBA.

Hope to see you there!

1928 Saint Mary’s Road, Moraga, CA 94556 (925) 631-4000

Post-Residency: Was It All A Dream?

A GravestoneIf New Hamspshire were a lover, she would be bitter at times and take to teasing her admirers. One day, her sky is scintillating, crystal clear, the air crisp as an autumn leaf, but she will turn on you the following afternoon. Storm clouds troop across what used to be a dome of limitless color, and the woods that shivered bright in all shades of brown and black turn somber in a heavy veil of mist. The contrast chills the senses. Sheer blinding light reflected from the snowfall seems as if it could stretch for infinite infinities is cut short by startling stone grays and blues from rocks defying the snow, and the endless trees that turn darker the whiter the landscape gets. The white tries to blanket every surface, and there is no escaping it except to take cover indoors then, before anyone knows it, the ice melts, the sound of rushing water surrounds, you, as if the whole world will slip into a steady stream.

In this setting, I renewed my commitment to writing, vows sanctified by fellow colonists, board members, and the gentle and caring staff of MacDowell. Being at the colony is a recognition of faithful commitment, acknowledged by a historic institution, sanctioned by a tradition, a national and international culture that carries the  legacy of what art is, what it could be, and what it has meant since 1907.

This place serves something like a training camp for creative types turned athletes. Here we learn the loneliness of longPeterborough Town Library distance running or how to build stamina for short fevered bursts of process and creative output. In the utter silence of our studio, we test the elasticity of our strengths, learn our weaknesses, and strategize how to tone our creative muscles, so we can re-enter the other world, the world of earning paychecks and paying rent or mortgages, which is someone else’s fantasy we’re obliged to participate in from time to time, but not while at MacDowell.

An hour feels like three in our studios. It’s amazing how much work you get done when you sit down to it, and let your mind settle with the tasks in front of you. There is this idea of being social and creative, and the two are sometimes mutually exclusive, and sometimes they go hand in hand. You learn the dance of both at MacDowell.

in case of emergency break iceAside from missing my MacDowell family, comprised of composers, architects, a martini-making photographer, a dancing upholsterer, ping-pong playing poets, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, and interdisciplinary practitioners, if there is anything I could wish for is a residency solely for reading. To sit with a book and immerse in words is also an art, which takes discipline and practice. Of course, a residency dedicated solely to reading may be asking for too much, as if MacDowell doesn’t spoil one enough.

What I’ve learned & accomplished @ MacDowell include some of the following though it will take a while to fully digest the experience:

  • Revised 250 pages of the novel.
  • In revision, imagine each word costs $5. Figure out how much you can take away from and still have the essence of the story intact. Think Minimalism.
  • Do not dance with long johns on.
  • You will over-eat.
  • Life is not about looking for answers, but seeking big and meaningful questions for the chase of a lifetime.
  • Spotted, deer, one bushy white-stomached squirrel, two crows, flocks of turkey, which are bigger and blacker than the California ones.
  • Met my family from Maine and am amazed and inspired by their love.
  • Survived 7° weather + snow + 50mph wind.
  • Snow plows make me think of Москва.
  • There are no Targets in the UK.
  • A folly is a nineteenth century typology for landscape with no functional purpose.
  • Never fly United. Never.
  • I miss my MacDowell family and dearly hope to reconnect in person soon.
  • Thank god for Facebook, really!
  • If you’re deep and close enough to the projekt, it will tell you what needs to be done and instruct you how to proceed.

For safe-keeping in planning the next residency, which is just around the corner, here’s a list of what to bring for next time:

  1. blank pads of paper and post-its
  2. permanent markers
  3. push pins
  4. chocolate
  5. chai tea
  6. nice stationary
  7. wall calendar
  8. scissors, tape, and other small travel office supplies (check out Muji)
  9. scented candles
  10. gin
  11. beer
  12. extra batteries
  13. extra plug for mobile phone and Kindle
  14. lighter and/or matches
  15. hard disk
  16. good hand lotion
  17. pocketknife

Thank you MacDowell for a dream come true! Here’s hoping for a return visit soon.

On To MacDowell

Out of my wildest dreams, 2013 starts off with a three-week fellowship at the nation’s oldest arts colony, MacDowell founded in 1907 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. If yours truly wasn’t also accepted to The Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland for June this year as well, I’d be suffering from a serious case of imposter syndrome. And below is why. A shortened list of some of MacDowell’s past fellows and the projects they worked on during their stay should give plenty of reasons for doubt and legitimacy. Sally Field, I feel you.

Marian MacDowell in front of Edward's log cabin, the Colony's prototype studio. Archival image.

Aaron Copland
Meredith Monk
Duncan Sheik
Nick Carbo
Amy Bloom
Lan Samantha Chang

Louise Erdrich (known to have worked on one of my all time favorite novels, Love Medicine)

James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room)
Eric Gamalinda
Jessica Hagedorn
Garrett Hongo
Allison Landa
Rick Moody
ZZ Packer
Nzotke Shange
Lysley Tenorio

From their website:

The mission of The MacDowell Colony is to nurture the arts by offering creative individuals of the highest talent an inspiring environment in which they can produce enduring works of the imagination.

The sole criterion for acceptance to The MacDowell Colony is artistic excellence. MacDowell defines excellence in a pluralistic and inclusive way, encouraging applications from artists representing the widest possible range of perspectives and demographics.

So, what will this soon-to-be-fellow do at MacDowell? A game plan would be nice though a very near and dear writer friend called just days before departure with her advice since she’s been to Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and East Anglia. She was adamant about not expecting too much: “You’re not going to get everything you want done, but you will get what you need.” Echoing the wise words of Mick Jagger, she confessed wishing someone had told her that during her residencies.

The expectations thus far have waned and waxed with anticipation, and we’ll see which if any come true, knowing that as my partner’s ukelele instructor once warned during a music lesson, a creative person is never satisfied by their creation, prepare to be perpetually dissatisfied and to feed off your dissatisfaction.

With that in mind these goals may sound abstract but here they are: to tighten voice & style or at least have a stronger sense of each. Not that the entire projekt will be tightened but a firmer grasp on voice & style, and how it changes from character to character, from start to finish, just a keener sense on what each of them are and their evolution would be wonderful. Which leads to the question about structure. Does voice and style dictate structure? Is it vice versa or do the two really have nothing to do with the other? Perhaps that question will be answered on the Eastern seaboard.

More than anything a mental map of where this projekt needs to go is the ultimate aim, and that map needs explicit directives on voice, style, structure, and tone, knowing that all of this should evolve from one chapter to the next depending on character and progression of plot.

This residency is not only a good chance for the physical, mental, and spiritual kick in the arse as all good travel is since I’ll be clear across the country in a completely new and snowy environment. There’s also the mingling with other writers, painters, musicians, architects, sculptors, and who knows what these encounters may bring, but the relationship that is utmost in mind is the intent to gain a newer, closer, almost incestuous, yes, I said it, intimacy with the projekt. Even after five years, it still feels so much of a foreign beast. Is there anyway that the projekt might feel like a part of me, an extension of self? And in getting to know this piece better, getting skin close to it, is there a possibility of taking Writing to a different level? To not just make this art a second nature but first? That may be asking too much.

Satisfaction with dissatisfaction. If that’s one guarantee, I may just be ready.

If you have advice about New Hampshire, Boston, cold weather fun, what do and what not to do at residencies, and or creative-making, I’m all ears. Happy 2013. May yours be a healthy and bright new adventure!