Tag Archives: Arts

On Tests, on Failure…

scansTomorrow, I’ll go in for my eighth MRI. I’ve only had one MRI with positive results. Usually, there are more lesions. Usually, there will be new meds. These are tests I fail regularly. When I was in middle school, I got a 65% on the long division test. In high school, I failed a chemistry test. Later, I did not do well on the LSATs, but I didn’t really want to be a lawyer, anyway, did I? Life is too ambiguous to insist on being so sure.

This past month, I filled out an application for a new doctor. “I don’t know if I can handle anymore rejection,” I said to my mother. I had received three manuscript rejections the day before. Still, I detailed my c-sections and my multiple sclerosis and my depression on the papers. I was accepted. It was a thrill! At my first appointment, I was polite. I tried not to seem overly needy. He explained to me about depression. I remembered my melancholy adolescence and drinking through college and nodded to him when he explained about the brain and chemicals. I thought about my grandmother. I wanted to explain to him what I knew about science and feelings. I’ve tried to control my brain chemistry with thought, and when I can’t–unsurprisingly!–have found the ultimate illusion of failure. Emotions and science have a complicated relationship.

Last month, when I opened the email from my servicer that my grace period was ending for my student loans, anxiety spiked. But I don’t have a full-time job yet, I said to the email. I have not yet received all the rejections from my manuscript! I needed more time to redeem myself, and I still continue to spend all the time in the world arguing this in my head. How easy it is to forget the many people in my shoes, also in the muck of the temporary plight of the humanities, people I don’t consider as having failed. To believe in failure assumes that the chances for success are finite. I feel like I’ve realized something as I type this, yet I know that in the face of a particularly hard rejection or a disappointment, I will forget again.

I have read all the articles about how to make an MFAW worth it, how to survive post-degree life, how to make the degree count for something, and though I do all these things because I love them, I wonder, as I always have, what defines a writer? How do you meet whatever measures and hurdles? How do you pass that test? To my students, I say, If you write, you are a writer, but do I believe that for myself? Sadly, not right now. Right now, I believe that if you can publish a book, if you can pay back the loans for your writing degree with a job you acquired as a result of that degree, then you are a writer. I don’t hold these beliefs about other people who write, but these feelings haunt me about myself. Feelings are not rational. And who knows how that will change with time? In ten minutes, while I’m jotting down notes about the novel I’m afraid to start, I might change my mind. Or I might be 80 years old with dozens of manuscripts and no books, and then, I might even consider myself a writer. There is something to be said for keeping on.

Around some people, I become unsure, and I feel like I am not who I am, or that I am flawed and my body is weak because it is diseased, or that I am doing the wrong things. Some people are just so sure. I ask my husband, “Why do I stay quiet? I don’t want to pass their tests. I want to politely disagree. I do not always want to be the world’s little sister.” And as I say this, my mind is back in the conversation with my mouth closed and my insides quivering with dissent. I don’t want to be told everything. I want to tell, too. At some point in my life, passing the test became about following directions, meant allowing myself to be told. How to fail, now?

A month or so ago, I took a Buzzfeed quiz that, in some psychic way, told me my biggest fear was failure by analyzing my favorite pictures from a selection. Yes, I chose a photo of a hand beckoning out of the dark. Yes, I chose the photo of a woman staring into an overgrown field. Sure, I chose the picture of a couple standing under an umbrella in the rain. Somehow, Buzzfeed was right, and they, whoever they are, passed the test: I am afraid of failure, and then I wondered if I had passed the Buzzfeed test by answering the questions right. Hey, who’s testing who here? I wanted to know. Buzzfeed has also told me I am sensitive, that my outgoing personality masks my introversion, and that if I were a hippie, my name would be Flower. They always pass, or I always pass. The thing about the pain of failure is that it’s a smack in the face to hope. I remember the initial failure I felt after each c-section, and how now, the failure of my body to do what nature intended has become gauze-like in comparison to my sons, who, in my mind, could not fail me if they tried.

While I’m in the MRI machine tomorrow, I will have an IV–my least favorite part. This is for “contrast,” something that makes me imagine neon hi-liter fluid coursing through my arms and legs and brain while I try to keep still. “Try not to swallow for the next minute and 40 seconds,” the radiologist will say over a speaker while the machine does its thing, sounding like ten squirrels dropping acorns on a hollow log. I will try not to breathe. I’ll hope not to gasp for air. Or heaven forbid, sneeze. No vivid thoughts, even. I might decide, at that moment, that I am not taking the test, that I am the object, the machine is the writer. This will not calm me. In a day or two, I will know if I passed.

This month, or this week, or tomorrow, I will be rejected from a literary magazine or a book contest. Usually, I will submit somewhere else. This month, I will reject someone’s manuscript with a softened heart. As a writer and editor, if I do what writers are supposed to do, and keep on, thinking to myself about Beckett’s “fail better,” I will be rejected far more times than I will actually reject. I will write something nice in the writer’s email, and what I really would like to do is take their address off the manuscript and mail them a personal letter on stationery with a blue Pilot Precise V5 ballpoint, telling them how close they were to being accepted and not to feel like they failed. After all, I’d made it to the end of their piece and had taken time to write that letter. In this way, I will tell.


The Intersection of Drawing and Writing and Living

photo (2)Last night, I drew a charcoal picture of what I meant to be my parents’ golden retriever, Buddy (with two eyes), before next Thursday, when a cancerous mass will be removed from his skull, along with one of his eyes.

I’ve just graduated with my MFA in fiction, and am writing a short story about a pedophile bicyclist, but was, after reading Adam Gopnik’s “Life Studies” early on at Goddard, compelled to buy a $5 charcoal set from a close-out store and since, have been drawing pictures that resemble animals and people, but in actuality, all feel like drafts of a story without a true epiphany, without heart or breath. I post these to Facebook and send them in text messages to my best friend because they feel like immediate gratification, as though in one glimpse, someone can see what clearly is a dog. Although perhaps too unpolished to illustrate the sadness Buddy can’t know exists when two eyes become one eye. Soon, he will see the world one-half at a time. The drawing was in-progress, in much the same way my fiction was, a father struggling to realize his fears for his son, who’s way closer in proximity to a pedophile than he’s comfortable with.

I talked through this charcoal drawing of Buddy last night while sitting next to my husband, Cory, who watched the sequel of “Taken,” a movie I couldn’t watch because I didn’t find it believable. How could members of one family be stolen two times? I asked him.

How do I know? Cory said.

It’s hard to draw something you know personally, I said. I can mess up a squirrel, or impose my own ideas of my mother’s face in a portrait of her from the 60s (because it’s not how I know her today), but Buddy’s nose, the fattest most bulbous blackest nose I’ve ever seen on a dog has to look both natural and true-to-Buddy-as-he-is-tonight and believable. I spent most of the two hours I drew Buddy just trying to get the shadows on Buddy’s face accurate enough to craft his nose as horrifying and endearing and entirely normal.

In 2008, my parents lost their first golden retriever, also named Buddy, suddenly, because of a mass that put pressure on his heart. And now, this Buddy, too, has a mass. My father and I chatted briefly on the phone last night, discussing how unfair and unbelievable it was that both Buddies could have such a fate. But life, it turns out, is not about what’s believable, though we hold art to a standard of making life somehow believable and sensible and controlled. Workshops discuss sequence and plot and structure as though life relies on this instinct–and perhaps because it doesn’t. Maybe it’s controlling fear that makes art worth the hours and thousands of dollars we spend on it.

Cory looked over and commented on the shadow and angles cast on Buddy. How his ear didn’t have the shading it should and how it didn’t follow his snout entirely.

Why is everything about angles and math? I asked.

He was right, and slowly, I erased the charcoal enough so that I could recognize Buddy in the drawing, and I said, Hi, Buddy, when his nose looked about right. I guess it’s really all about light and dark, I said, trying to oust math from the art. This morning, while continuing the pedophile story, the father materialized, petrified for his son, and at the same time damaged by his own experience with a pedophile, all while realizing that souls are souls and bodies are bodies. I hope, in the final draft, he captures how simple math and unbelievable life have the potential to wreck us.


10 Reasons You Fear Your Son Will Become a Writer

desk1. While you’re at residency in Vermont, your son tells his Kindergarten teacher that his sister died in the army. Your husband texts you a photo of the note Mrs. C sent home.  Primary colors don’t ease the word “died.”

You turn to your fellow writers, and say, “Oh no.  He’s going to be a liar.”

You imagine his future will become filled with therapy sessions, or his friends will abandon him when he lies about his favorite movie–or worse, his marriage will fail when he loses his job after his employer realizes he falsified the degree on his application.  Of course, you’d never say this out loud.

“Oh, a fiction-writer,” they say.

2.  At the age of three, your son tells you that before he was born, he was an old man who built houses.  There are whole descriptions of who he was before he was born– a gray hat, a red hammer–and then, he tells you how he died when the tornado came through.  

3. While you and your spouse discuss something boring in the kitchen–like the state of your finances or travel arrangements to Vermont, you catch just the tips of your son’s fingers peeking from behind the refrigerator.  When you call his name, he giggles.  Eavesdropping.  You wonder how he knows all your tricks.

4. When you were younger, you wrote stories about babysitters who went missing.  You read book after book of scary stories–or just a few books, over and over: Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories that Go Bump in the Night,  and Shirley Cox Husted’s Valley of the Ghosts.  And now your son proclaims, “I’m going to write a comic book–a scary chipmunk book!  I just need you to draw the cover and write all the words,” and you realize he means it.  He works on this book, which he turns into a solo venture, every day.  He talks about it fleetingly and sporadically, as though the story is always on his mind, “Oh! An idea!” he’ll say, or “I’ll put a volcano on the next page!”  He sits on the couch next to you with the book in his lap and the colored pencils at his side.  He is serious.  

5.  When he doesn’t know the truth, what reality is, the hard stuff that you’re thankful he doesn’t ask you about (well, not always, anyway), he makes it up.  When his school bus drives down the dead-end street in the afternoon, he tells the kids on his bus that his great-grandmother went to the High Street Cemetery to die.  A detail you steal for one of your stories.

6.  He spends hours writing words that make no sense, and you begin to wonder if he’s been watching you in the middle of the day at your keyboard.  He writes the letters K-B-I-V-A-P-W, and asks, “What does that spell?”  You could probably find that same word typed somewhere in your manuscript.

7.  When you drive by the house you moved from last fall, he recalls things about it you don’t remember–that once, he built a fort in the bathroom, and after you pass the house, his voice breaks and he says, “I really miss that house.  I’m sad.” It’s the kind of emotion whole novels are built on.

8.   In the summer, when you walk to Main Street for ice cream, he gives a tour of the town, relaying the setting in a  narrative history.  “This,” he says, gesturing toward the brick house on State Street, “is where a plane crashed and a boy died.”  He revels in details, and you make a note that he is always listening.

9.  While reading Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing, you see your son’s face during her descriptions of a writer’s childhood.  How a curious child clings to the parts of life they don’t know (the scary, the threatening, the unknowable), and then mulls those parts over and over until that focus resides alongside memory and lived-life, and so the mind has somehow forged its own recollection.

10.  His nightmares–the kind of dreams a creative mind spins wildly while the dreamer should be resting.  His mind never stops.  When he wakes up, he narrates every movement that he’s slept.  He tells you his dreams as though he’s lived them, and there are times when he cries at their dark premises–his new friend turned into a lizard by a monster.  You tell him these things aren’t real, and when he calms down, with his head on your shoulder, you wonder what you can tell him that you know, for sure, is true.


On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.


Writing Illness

English: Detail of plate 4, figure 4 of Pathol...

Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease. Last fasciculi published in 1838. Depicts Multiple Sclerosis lesions before the disease had been described by Charcot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was the only one sobbing at Bellevue Literary Review‘s AWP panel.

Poet Hal Sirowitz, who writes honestly and humorously about his experience with Parkinson’s disease, had me crying.

He stood up at the podium with his wife and read in a deadpan voice, sometimes struggling to get out the end of the line.  His wife stood next to him and I didn’t know if it was to help him along with the reading, or to help him stand– or even if he needed or wanted any of these things.  But I guess in this case, needing and wanting really are two different things.  Sirowitz read poems, and it seemed planned that his wife would finish his lines or sometimes she started the lines and he would finish them.  His wife, composed, smiled at his humor.

I chose to sit near the front so I could quickly thank the poetry editor after for publishing my poem in their prior issue, but I ended up staring at the presenters, wiping snot from my upper lip, imagining that they looked at me strangely.  Mortified, I left immediately.

I’ve written two poems about Multiple Sclerosis.  I’ve written essays that I don’t really care for about the disease–essays that feel too self-deprecating or too self-pitying or too removed.  So, I try to work the disease in other ways.  When a peripheral character in a story needs a disease, I give them MS, and then I make them really tired all the time, or I make them walk with a cane, or I make them die.

What else should I do with these characters?  How should I write a protagonist, a mother, who has MS?  What else should be in her life besides her disease and her family?

Bellevue held another panel at AWP: “In Sickness and In Health: Literature at the Intersection of Medicine, Science, and the Arts,” where I teared up, but didn’t sob.

I took notes.

Sure, the title of the panel sounds clinical.  But that was the rub–how something so intensely personal like disease, something that makes itself so much a part of the body that we sometimes don’t even recognize we have it, can steal away the most human aspects of ourselves.  So much time in the panel was discussing how “medical-ese” takes the primal, human, messy parts of disease and sterilizes those parts into vocabulary terms that the patient can’t understand without a medical dictionary.

So I went to the human side when researching the history of MS for this novella.  I am determined to explore it in a way that lets me control its every appearance, though not my character’s.  I suppose that I should be an entirely different being from my character.

I read mostly archival news articles from the 40s through the 70s.  I wanted to know what the public knew about the disease then, to understand how little was understood.

From the Toledo Blade, June 12, 1947:  “Patients suffering from the ‘brutal’ and always fatal disease, multiple sclerosis, are getting an answer to their plea, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about this disease?'”

I thought about this.  When I was diagnosed, my friend told me it was a “trendy” disease.  As much as I didn’t understand the diagnosis, I didn’t understand what my friend meant.  Benign?  Fashionable?  Cool?  Preferable?

I re-read the line: “brutal and always fatal.”  My great-uncle Tony had MS, and in his time, I wonder, was he devastated in ways I couldn’t know?  The disease isn’t thought of as “fatal” anymore.  Hardly even “brutal”–at least less-so–for people diagnosed today.  Though there are days I might describe it as “brutal” (certainly episodes of vertigo), I’d feel too guilty to use that term.  There are days I don’t feel diseased at all.

From reading his poetry, it’s clear Hal Sirowitz is living his disease–I imagine he feels the steady decline with every one of his senses.  I’m sure he can tell when disease is taking his life from him because he might find something he used to do that he can no longer do.  His poetry tracks disease, treats it as fact, but still prods at the unknowing, bravely looks it in the face.  Even if the face with that disease is his.

The most common word associated with MS in the old news articles is “mysterious.”  And I get that.  Doctors and scientists didn’t know what caused it, how to fix it, how people could be either unable to walk or walking just fine, or how–the scary part, still–to predict its course.  It is mysterious.

Dare I call it like I see it, how it presents itself in my life?  A nuisance?  A ghost?  A threat?

Even though some articles refer to it as “a crippler?”  Because sometimes, it is.

I’ll write into the mystery of it.   And it’s still a mystery to me how to do that…even as I finish this blog post that I wrote to make sense of writing and illness.  Of story and disease.

–a poignant essay by Rafael Campo, “Illness as Muse,” from Bellevue.


“Sibling Revelry,” essay in Animal

a new essay, “Sibling Revelry,” up at animal: a beast of a literary magazine!

Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine

Sibling Revelry

by Sarah Cedeño

“It’s a dead bird!” I call to my sister, Micheil.

Its bones and feathers are flattened here, exactly how a bird looks, but like it’s been hidden between the pages of a dictionary for a week.

Micheil brings a neon, size-12 kid’s shoebox, mine.

My brothers, in aftershave, mullets, and pimples, come down the hill in our yard, one carrying a shovel.

I am six, and the youngest, kneeling by the bird—the first dead thing larger than a potato bug I’ve seen up close.  It’s the closest I’ve been to any bird.  Usually, seeing a bird’s wings flap hard against the air made it seem as though I was chasing them.

A dashed line of one-hundred-year old maples border the chain-link fence around us.

My brother Darrin digs the hole.  Our dog, Coty, drags her chain through the chalky dirt after a squirrel, but leashed to her doghouse, she…

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Dear Diary: Connie Rodriguez and What I’ve Realized About My Blog

Student Biking

Student Biking (Photo credit: University of Denver)

I stopped keeping a journal when I graduated from high school.  My journal was a daily escape from ages eight to seventeen.  Upon graduation, I stopped keeping a journal because its contents would then become volatile.

Before that, I journaled compulsively, usually to Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing cd, which spun at such high volumes in my stereo, I could hear the hum of my parents’ hardwood floors.  I didn’t do it because I wanted to.  It became something I couldn’t forgo if I wanted to, like the trail of my parents’ cigarette smoke.

Today, I sit here with a paper plate full of Triscuit crumbs and smears of cream cheese, wondering why I cannot continue writing a series of flash fictions for Goddard without first writing a blog post.  I’ve wondered why I had to do this after the Boston Bombings, the Newtown tragedy, the loss of Alexandra Kogut last semester, and other experiences I’ve had like wishing I could call my grandmother on her birthday.

The blog has become, in some fancier way, my diary, which is why, for weeks, I am able to not write a thing, and then some days, I can’t not write.  My blog entries typically come out in an hour or less of writing.  And now I understand why.  It’s the same muse in action that has you jotting down story ideas on a fast food napkin.  I blog because I cannot continue my daily routine without writing about whatever it is I’m obsessing about.

For the past few days, it’s been Connie Rodriguez, one of my students from this past fall, who died over the weekend.

My husband scolds me after tragedy, as though he expects me to react any differently:  I am as guilty as anyone who grips the controller to watch the terror unfold before them.

I found her old submissions from my creative writing course.  I needed proof.  I couldn’t believe she was my student just last semester, it wasn’t so long ago, and I hadn’t seen her since.  I read a Facebook friend’s page religiously, but not for posts about her daughter like I usually do, but for photos of Connie, who was her friend.  I Googled her name to see if her obituary had been posted yet or if anyone had written about her.  Just before writing this, I found a university news article about her.  I had to write.

As her instructor, I knew these limited things about Constance Rodriguez:

She wrote one hell of a short fiction piece for her portfolio–a story about twin sisters who would not stop battling each other, who would wake each other in the middle of the night to physically and brutally terrorize one another.  The story ended with a blaze, the house catching fire, the girls running away.

She was the first to share her writing on the first day of class.

She lost her mother.

She had seen things and lived a life that I could not ever fathom– a life she wrote in her poetry and essays that I will not post here.  She was a survivor.

From reading the article, from looking at pictures, Connie was a bubbly girl, a forgiving friend.  What I can’t stop thinking about is this: the pain beneath her pretty smile.

We like to think we are heroes, that we can save the world, that the future is ours for preserving.  I wonder if I could have done or said one thing to make her life, then, easier.  I couldn’t have healed a thing for her, a tough girl enduring a tough time who’d lost her mother just before she started my class.  Had I known her deep state of grief, would I have been able to be fair?  Should I have been able to be fair?

I haven’t stopped thinking about her since Sunday, when I learned of her passing.  I printed her poems that had been archived away in my college email, the first creative essay she wrote for class.  I read them at 10 o’clock on Sunday night.  I re-read them at 4 pm on Monday, and not more carefully than I did when I graded them, but differently–with the urgency to pull her back, to prevent the loss of her after it happened.

I grieve in a different way from her friends, from her family, who grieve the loss from their guts.  I am sad about the small part of her I knew, the small part of her that pulled back into herself towards the end of the semester, who veered away from school into sadness.  But I remember her as something bigger, as part of a future unknown, as part of a difference we are afraid to make.