Tag Archives: Goddard College

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.

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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 Writing Fiction from History, Place, and Depression

993526_10151673190772254_753025867_nThis week, The Missouri Review published an interview with me for their Working Writers Series on their website!

It’s sort of like when you watch those horror movies, and there’s the disclaimer at the beginning, “Inspired by true events.”  Every story I write begins with a piece of history I’ve researched extensively: either a setting, like a home for unwed mothers; or a conflict, like a boy who was drowned in the canal; or a character, like a woman who worked in a Quaker Maid canning factory; but then the stories take their own emotional bends.  The history is only the construct, really, and the emotional truths — which I sometimes struggle with capturing and sometimes takes drafts and drafts to do — are what actually make the stories come to life.”

Click here to read the rest.

 


To Brockport, From Goddard, With Love

Goddard College Clockhouse

Goddard College Clockhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I haven’t traveled much in my lifetime.  I can count the times I’ve been out of the country on one hand, and most of those trips were hour-long drives to Niagara Falls, when I’d squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath over the Rainbow Bridge.

I love Vermont.  During this residency at Goddard College, my MacBook is on its last leg, and I had too much Sauvignon Blanc last night.  I’ve never been to France, and I can’t do that accent, so I practiced “Sauvignon Blanc” over and over, meaning to order it without sounding idiotic or pretentious.  Practice doesn’t make everything perfect.  I can hardly get the keys on my Mac to type words I’ve spelled since first grade.

Yesterday, I tried to get to the RocRoots page from my aging Mac to see a story I’d written for the Democrat & Chronicle about Edgar Coapman and his dog.  It took me an hour.  I managed, and the piece looked like it had when I sent it out, familiar in many ways–not just in the way that it was my work, but in the way that it was my place, as though I can peer into the depths of this village I call home, all the way from Goddard, the place I call home for this week.

I’ve been out of town for a few days, and since, life has gone on in startling ways–my brother gave birth to kidney stones, my sons have become still more articulate (and are getting along), my uncle has come to visit from Florida, bringing with him a larger sense of home than can fit between the boundaries of our village, our house has glimpsed, perhaps, its new owners, and I am here, on the outside, gathering reports like I do during research– only reporting from decades later–preparing to write some story, some thing that can hold tight to pulp of human life.


On Sipping the Whiskey

MFA Adventures

I have one workable day before I have to send my third packet off to my MFA Adviser.  This day is a heavy research day.

Here’s the to-do list:

Image1. String a clothesline in my backyard, among the non-stop cricket chirps of early fall.

2. Hang a bin-ful of wet laundry from the line.

3. Repeat step 2, thinking about a loss I’ve suffered.  This part, I know, will bend my mind in places it hasn’t bent before.  Also, the crickets will haunt me long after I’ve come inside.

4.  Sip whiskey from a bottle I wouldn’t normally touch.  Blech.  I will take note of the burn that I can anticipate, but most importantly, make note of the what I don’t anticipate.

5.  Smoke a cigarette, alone, that I’ve bummed off my mother.  I will struggle to light it with a match, cupping it the way I’ve always seen people do, but I bet it will be harder than it looks.  It will take more than one try.  I will feel uncool, but I will probably feel many other things I wasn’t expecting.

I’m excited to see how these projects impact the piece I’m writing.  It’s not a thing I’ve thought to do before, but I think it will improve the “physicality,” the presence of my writing.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

My next field trip: to the abandoned cemetery in Brockport.  Just in time for Halloween.


While I’m Supposed to be Doing Packet Work…

Goddard College Clockhouse

Goddard College Clockhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I learned at my first Goddard residency.

Right now, I should be reading The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck, as prescribed by my advisor, but after a week since residency, I need to describe my experience–even if it is in vain, but especially if it helps anyone decide whether or not to go for an MFA.

I knew this: when I came home, my living and dining rooms would be different colors. Life before the residency would have warm tones–my living room was a shade of beige that I would title “uncolor,” and my dining room was a mistake from the first year we bought our house–not pink, as my husband likes to call it, but “rosedust.”

I can’t say what I expected of the residency, specifically, only what I thought would happen as a result of it. I wondered if my youngest son would stare blankly at me upon my return, forgetting the crevice of my neck and shoulder where his little peach-y head sat just a year ago; forgetting the night I held him in my great-grandmother’s rocking chair as my tired eyes followed a single firefly around his bedroom; or forgetting my name that, when he said it this way, made me wonder if it was accidental: “mum-mum.”

I wondered if my oldest son would cry himself to sleep every night and both hate me and love me more for it.

I wondered if my mother’s worries were true: if I’d be abducted–by anyone–locals, college students, or aliens, then sold into a jam or potholder-making business, and with my cell phone stolen and memory erased, cease to exist as I once was. Or worse, I could have just ceased.

I thought maybe I would realize what a marvelous genius I was, that I would sit at my Formica desk in my building that smelled musty (as though Raymond Carver had really never left) and type away on my old Mac that I’d romanticize was an Underwood typewriter and emerge on the last day of residency with a manuscript that would exempt me from the next 3 residencies. And didn’t we all, really, wonder this? No, me neither.

Here’s what I realized.

There is a large population of people with dietary restrictions and a host of glorious food at the Goddard cafeteria to meet them. There was probably leftover bacon at the end of breakfast every day. Yes, there was bacon at breakfast. Every. Day. And there should never, ever, be bacon leftovers. Seriously, I ate more than I ever did at home, and I feel like I lost weight while I was there. Mystical.

Regardless of how long it’s been since I’ve been in school (6 years!), I could still find my inner “student.” I took up the director of the program when he advised us to break from workshops on occasion. Sometimes I “skipped school” and Skyped instead, feeling strange in my room while those who walked in and out of the building overheard me talking to my son about three-year-old matters like superheroes, potties, and bunk bed sleepovers. Sometimes I sat on a hill with the sun overhead, reading. Sometimes I ate slice after slice of homemade bread with fresh butter from the cafeteria between meals. Once, I took a nap. Being a student again was, in fact, easy.

Every college has a frat house. Goddard has the Music Building. Behind it is a seemingly perpetually lit bonfire. Behind that is a forest that friends tell me is reminiscent of the movie, The Village. There are also fireflies.

Every college has a ghost. I wasn’t the only Goddard student set on capturing evidence. I will say that I found what the cast of Ghost Adventures would consider solid evidence: my camera would not work in the Martin Manor (the haunted building), but would once I left. There were orbs in the upstairs hallway. There was an opaque film over photos I took and retook in the allegedly haunted room. This is just my evidence. And also, Ouija Boards work. (Disclaimer: these are views of the blogger and do not reflect the views of Goddard College.)

Every college has a student from Western New York. Or Appalachia. Or Central Iowa. Or [insert your little-known place here]. Really.

I realized this: writers are just fun to be around. I made friends like I was in Kindergarten–every person had no clue who I was–I could have been someone I’d never met.

I met a vegan shoe-hound from Brooklyn who prides herself on being mistaken for a drag queen on the NYC streets. I met a blond-haired teacher who can sing Journey in front of strangers at the request of any playwright. I met a potato-bug of a guy, a beanie-wearing, screen-writing, skeptic-turned-believer. I met a woman who lost someone in her first few days of residency, but sucked it up and stuck it out, and was there when I left.

When I got home, both of my sons knew who I was. They hugged me and smiled and hugged me and smiled and then asked me for a snack. My oldest showed me the two rooms, now painted in cool tones. The very walls had changed–a muted turquoise called “Emperor,” and some kind of quiet charcoal color.

For the first few days, my oldest son asked me if I liked the new walls, and then he reminded me how much he missed me when I was gone.

Still, a week later, as I write this, the residency colors everything. I can still smell the fresh paint in the house.


Dear Johnny: To My Son as I Pack for Goddard

English: Colargol with a suitcase.

English: Colargol with a suitcase. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Johnny,

On Thursday, I leave for Vermont.  Specifically, Goddard College, for a residency in creative writing.  Remember this when you decide that your Silly Putty masterpieces are worthy of a career in sculpture, that your crayon drawings or chocolate-syrup-fingers are on to something artful, or when you want your comedic presence to be shared with a room of people in the dark, who laugh at your will.  Art is often thought of as the least-practical route, but is looked to, by everyone, for meaning, when reason ultimately fails.  And it often will.

Today, you told me that the “countdown chain” I made you was “reawwy awful” because I put you in timeout.  When I was little, Mrs.Ewanow, my Kindergarten teacher, had us all make chains with 25 Lick-N-Stick links, alternating red and green.  I brought mine home to my mother.  We hung it on the door to the basement, and I tore one away each day, though when I felt really anxious to unwrap the presents under the tree, I wanted to take two links away.

Today, when you told me you didn’t like my chain, I thought, Well, it serves me right for thinking I could compare to Santa.

I’ve tried to tell you so many ways that I am going.  Here’s how it went the first time I broke it to you:

“Johnny, I’m going to go to work.  For a whole week,” I said.

“Yeah?” you asked.  “Are you going today?”

“No,” I said.  “Not for two weeks.”

“Okay!  Well, wanna build a train track?”  you asked.

Sammy is so little, Johnny.  Today, you tried to knock him over with your whole left side.  You scratched him on his back like a cat would.  You hugged him with so much love you left ten little white fingerprints on his tan back.  He loves you, too, so he just smiles.  Promise me this will not change by next weekend.

You get your dramatic, sensitive side from me.  Your grandmother is our opposite.  Her fingers are split and calloused.  Her eyes are darker and stronger than her coffee.  She is so small, but like the trunk of a tree, she is unwavering.  As a mother, she did whatever she wanted.

Her first day of work was the first day I went to Kindergarten.

And now, I am vanishing for a whole week.

So, what does one week equal in pre-school years?

I will be home in eight baths.  Or seven re-runs and two new episodes of Phineas and Ferb.  Or in ten chicken nuggets.  Eleven juice boxes.  Nine pairs of Spiderman underwear (if you don’t have any accidents).  Eight bedtime stories and missed-kisses goodnight.

It is hard for me to understand.  I am doing what I want, too.

Someday, you will tell me it was right.