Tag Archives: Master of Fine Arts

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.


Look in the Same Direction You’re Moving

Upon finishing an MFA, you’re surprised to discover that exactly what you thought would happen, actually does. It’s anticlimactic the same way that, at the end of this week, your teaching semester will end. Students will fall away to summer vacation, grades will post, and life will yawn out before you.

In Fiction Workshop, regarding a story set in a coin-operated porn booth, you say, “I’m sorry to ask this, but what is the climax in this piece?” After a few labored giggles, a student ventures a guess: “Is it when the main character flashes back to when his daughter was hit by a car?” and you discuss if a climax can happen in a flashback, and what does it mean for the story if it does? You don’t know what else to do but to care deeply–almost too deeply–about this.

After class, you and Sam feed the ducks bread that’s not yet stale, bread you could’ve turned into a peanut butter and jelly, but you birdlike the stretchy afternoons when you and your three-year-old dawdle down to the path of the Erie Canal and throw balled-up white bread at aggressive mallards. The two of you analyze the knobs of their heads for brown, looking for the mama ducks, but their babies haven’t hatched yet, so they’re at the nest, you tell Sam. Only the dads swim up.

Confess to your husband that, yes, you always suggest walking to the canal, and Sam’s always game for it, but once you near the bridge, which you know Sam takes entirely too long to cross (a childhood fear that you hope you conceal), you find yourself pulling him along, telling him, Come on, or You can’t stop in a cross walk, or Look in the same direction you’re moving, but inside, you completely understand how a person can be tied to what’s behind them.

Some of your students had been okay with a climax in flashback, but you were not. Then why not just tell the story of what happened in the flashback? you asked. Put more focus on the present scene, you said, sounding a lot like your MFA advisors.

Sammy doesn’t pull you ahead the way Johnny does.  Instead, you find yourself acting the part of child or the poor-mannered mutt. Why are you so eager to get a move on? There is no deadline. Your stories have been edited to the brim and wait for you to forget them so you can read them again and pick them apart like a vulture.

You and Sam sit on the stoop of Java Junction, a spot he’s chosen because there’s an ample pile of bird food surrounding the small tree just in front of the coffee shop and a legitimate aviary in its branches. Sam is happy to sit, watching the birds, so you humor him, taking a picture of him with your iPhone and watching the same car pass three times, its driver having completed a list of errands you no longer have.

Sammy loves birds. He knows the names of more birds than you do. In fact, this is true for all animals. When Sammy is in the bath, and you say, “If you dump that whale-ful of water out of the tub one more time…” he responds with, “Mom, it’s not a whale.”

You coerce him to leave the birds by promising to draw pictures of birds when you get home, but after dinner, when Johnny has come off the bus, and you have fed the boys cheese pizza, and then have promised to play outside, you will not have drawn a picture of a bird. Tomorrow, you think.

At 7, it’s nearly dusk, and you open and close the issue of The Writer that you’ve dog-eared on “Going Postal: A new book helps writers achieve success after an MFA” while trying to drink a coffee in the warm and fleeting spring sun amidst Sam, who is slow-going to understand the logistics of bike pedals, and John, who bikes dangerous circles around your house, so you give up. You crawl on all fours behind Sammy, who lets you cycle his legs until he gets the rhythm of the pedals, leaving your magazine on the porch to blow open in the wind you wish would go away.

The teenager next door, a sensitive thirteen year-old you only hope will stick close to your boys, calls the three of you over and points at what he thinks, at first, is a dead worm on the driveway. It’s too big to be a worm, he realizes.

“I think that’s its heart,” the teenager says.

“It looks scientific,” John says.

You and the teenager agree: it’s a baby bird.

When the three boys bury the bird, you help. You remember burying a bird you found in your childhood backyard not even a block away, and how you wrote about it years later.

Before the burial, Sam had reached slowly for the smushed bird, and you stopped him. He wasn’t sad, as you’d feared. It was a beautiful and gross thing–the colors like acrylics on the black pavement. And by the time you’d finish staring at it, Sam had given it a name.

 

 

 


This Is My Love Letter to Goddard

little-cupidThe first love letter I ever wrote was in Kindergarten to a boy I won’t name (because I’m friends with his wife on Facebook).  I wrote some in high school, to a high school sweetheart.  By the time I was in grad school, and met my husband, I was too cool for love letters.  I knew so much about myself that a couple scratches on a napkin or the back of a receipt would suffice.  I didn’t need to write long, scrawling pleas for love and for attention.  I had met my match, and he knew I loved him, so I didn’t need to write a big fat love letter sealed with a kiss.  I could draw a heart on his hand and call it a day.

When I imagine writing love letters–the type that declare love–the instinct, for me, is a need to confess it or lose it.

This is my love letter to Goddard, to the faculty, to the process (a process I “trust”), to the program that has sustained and nurtured my creative addiction for the past two years.

Goddard, I don’t want to lose you.  (“you”= the faculty and the students who come with the same love in mind, a shared goal of seeking humanity, of living the creative life, and the history, the place that wraps its arms around all of us.)  And the good thing is that education is not possessive, monogamous, closed-hearted, or self-seeking.  Goddard, especially, is none of those things.

Goddard, writers everywhere and anywhere cannot afford to lose you.  Your students recognize that the program requires sacrifice–a magnificent sacrifice of fear and doubt that sits in the gut of every writer–and every human!– and gives back something so big there isn’t a word for it, this new way of learning and teaching and being.   It makes this creative life possible.

For what it’s worth to the administration: understand what’s at stake for the students and faculty of all the Goddard programs to live and eat and breathe the practice of teaching and learning.  It’s the most fundamental and fulfilling of human exchange.

There is no number you can put on what comes in and goes out of these residencies.

We stand together as teachers and students.

 

 

 

 


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.


Nostalgia: Chiclets, pine trees, and dandelions.

Dandelion

Dandelion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes it nostalgia is that I will never really get it back, also that I never necessarily had it in the first place.  It might be the lemony-citrus sun dazing behind my yard’s pines, or a rambling, ambiguous decade and its context, or my mother’s Renault, a pair of peacock feather earrings, or, more likely, the specks of dust between all of these things that I can’t ever hold in my hands.

I hate philosophy.

A couple weeks back, my father and I explored the old barn foundation behind my house.  I collected an amber 1970s beer bottle, a scrap of brocade-like wallpaper, a piece of metal with the inscription Quaker City 5, and a clear glass bottle.  We pushed through the twigs and not yet blossomed elbows of trees, cracking and crunching through an abandoned moment.

My father fell in the scratchy patch so slowly that I wondered if he was losing his balance or attempting to sit.  I held scraps and bottles in my arms and, after standing himself back up, he carried the bottles for me.

“You okay?” I asked.  I was the child, the one who was supposed to fall.

The sun was coming through the trees like it always did, like it always had.

My father smelled of nostalgia.  Patchouli and cigarettes and responsibility.  Worn denim and Chamois shirts.  Records and taupe and Chevy Blazers and dandelions.

I was supposed to have fallen instead.  I smelled like Chiclet bubble gum, my two young children, metal swing sets, clumsiness and shampoo and borrowed money.

I didn’t fall.  Nostalgia surprised me.

Now, when I look back to the foundation, the leaves fold down around it.  The wall of heavy stones can hardly peek out from behind all the nature.  In front of the old foundation is a leftover dog house from the prior owners–distressed red over plywood, simple lines, mossing shingles.  That dog was a yellow lab, I bet, a bounding, mud-hungry, stick-eater that would love my dog, Molly.  They would sit in the hot afternoon sun near the pine trees, panting together.

When I begin my MFA in CW at Goddard College this summer, my plan is (for now) to run recklessly into nostalgia like a puddle, to roll down the childhood hill in my parent’s backyard into it, to let its grass leave green crosshatching on the skin of my legs and dandelion dander on my cheeks. What I mean is this: I live nearly every moment in hopes that it will be like some moment I’ve already lived.  I can’t get away from a setting, context, or moment I’ve lived or wish I’d lived.

I’m struck by the pulsing sun glowing behind the pine trees just west of my house, a view I imagine I share with the college students who rented rooms here in the 70s.  I was never there, but I can get there if I just write it.


Applications, Out.

List of state highways in Vermont

Image via Wikipedia

MFA letters are the most difficult damn things to write.  I had at least three versions of each essay I sent to each school.  If I am rejected, it’s not because I didn’t try.

Maybe I’ll post my sample after I hear the results, just for others to look at.

After the third proofread, I was afraid that if I looked at the piece again, I’d find an error or some better way to say something.   So I stopped myself.  I would have been revising until eternity.

Confession:  I sent my application to Bennington with a spot of coffee on the back of one of the pages.  I was just too tired to print it all over again.  Maybe the reviewer will think they dribbled their coffee.

They’re gone, and since they’ve monopolized my last few weeks, I am giddy with the expanse of time that’s opened up.

Now, I wait.

Dear Goddard, and Bennington, and Warren Wilson,

Please accept me for study at your MFA program along with my hefty application fees.

Please disregard the coffee stain,

Sarah


The ‘M’ in ‘MFA’ does not stand for Mother.

 
Play-Doh Retro Canister

Image via Wikipedia

My Vulnerable MFA Adventure

Technically, you could say I’m still in college, right?  I mean, some students even think I’m their fellow student. 

Students older than I am can’t conceive it’s an insult when they say, ” You’re the instructor?  Gawd, you look like a baby yourself.”

No, my nine-month-old is a baby, I think.  But outside, I’m smiling.  It’s an awkward smile, like I just opened the door on a stranger in a public bathroom.  But it’s still a smile.

Yes, I’ve complimented the instructor, they think.

I shouldn’t be complaining.  It’s not that I’m unhappy with my job.  Everyone should be lucky enough to look forward to work the way I do every day. 

This feeling, the need for more–more education, more writing, is an internal tugging at my heels that mirrors my son’s grasps at my ankles.  I can’t shake it. 

There is a place for me still, in this world of motherhood, as long as I occupy it. The young me who needs to write in order to make sense of life, isn’t disappearing the way she might have sixty years ago, when I would have been solely the mother figure.  Mothering, without a doubt, is the toughest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had.  It’s a life demanding of reflection, yet doesn’t offer much time to reflect.

Here’s why I’m writing this:

After years of considering more school, I finally abandoned the notion that I couldn’t.  I am applying to low-residency MFA programs.  Low-residency means I can leave for about ten days every six months, and then work on the rest of my degree from home.

It’s vulnerable to blog this.  Even as I’m typing, I want to delete every word I click out.  There is the chance I’m not accepted to even one of the three programs I’m applying to: Bennington, Goddard, and Warren Wilson.  

People I really care about will know, I think. 

People I don’t even know, will know, I think. 

I am blogging the process regardless, as a promise to myself that I will see it through. 

I almost changed my mind a few weeks ago, when I told my mother.  She wasn’t surprised.  Every time she thought she knew what I would do, I did the opposite.  She always thought I’d do exactly what she would do. 

When I told her, I had to clear my throat and take deep breaths and stutter, all things I thought were clichés of breaking into hard news, the icy sheet we don’t want to touch. 

When I told her, she said, “We are just two different people I guess, Sarah.”

Obviously, I thought.

“What about the kids?”  she asked.  We both looked at Johnny, who was making Play-Doh pizza.  Red caked his nails, smushed up against the pudge of his fingers.  He was oblivious.  His face crinkled.  This blob was the most important fun of his day.

The other morning, I’d asked him what he would do if I had to go away on vacation for a week. 

He’d said, “I’d be sad.” 

I often tell him I love him, and then immediately ask him what it means.  He’s still wading through language.  I want to know when his feet bury themselves in the grain of the sandy floor.  When he comprehends what life is made of.   

“It means you are nice.  It’s hugs,” he said.

That day he said he’d be sad when I left, I couldn’t ask him what that meant.

“Mom,” I said. “Cory will be here.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to watch the boys,” I spat.  I didn’t know where the anger came from.  This is what heartburn feels like, I thought.

“That’s not it, Sarah.  You know I would watch them,” she said.  “You should have thought about this before you had kids.”

 This is the woman who stayed home with me until I went to kindergarten.  She taught me how to (sort of) do laundry.  I still don’t iron.  When I make sauce, I can’t make it any other way than how she taught me–slivers of onions so that my dad doesn’t get chunks, nearly a cup of parmesan cheese, and always more garlic.  She gave me everything she had: brand new sweaters she’d bought for herself from a department store, rings I might never have worn but kept because they’d hugged her fingers for so long, and her nose, I have the wide bridge of her nose, how it flattens slightly as it reaches her forehead. 

 She was smushing her gum, always Wrigley’s Doublemint, against her teeth with her thumb.  She pulled it away, letting it draw out just a little, like mozzarella cheese, and brought it back to her teeth.  This is a habit for her, like biting her nails.  Her other arm bent at the elbow, propping her face away from me. 

“I don’t even want to talk about it anymore,” she said. 

This is how I knew she was really upset.  I’m usually opposed to qualifiers, but I mean really.  I stopped talking. 

My mother is okay with it now, but that’s not the interesting part, so I’m not going to write much other than she’s offered for Johnny to come stay with her when I leave for the 8-10 day residencies. 

In the end, she’d been upset because she didn’t want me to leave for the residencies alone. 

The only time I’ve ever really been alone was when I withdrew into my head. 

I need to do this.

Cory has been so supportive, which is the best part.  He actually is the one who exhumed the discussion from beneath about a million doubts that had sprung up like weeds.  I’d planted them all myself.

So that is the beginning.