Tag Archives: MFA

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.

 

 

 

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Smoke and Mirrors

"Blow smoke in her face, she'll follow yo...

“Blow smoke in her face, she’ll follow you anywhere” (Photo credit: – 404 Not Found -)

An MFA experiment.

I lit it with a match from an extra large box of kitchen matches.  And inhaled deeply, got a whiff of my parents and childhood and exhaled.  I tried to ash, but realized I didn’t need to yet.  All things in time.

Then, I sat down on a chair on my front porch, and then I stood up and leaned on the railing, and then I sat on the stairs and let the cigarette dangle from my bottom lip, and realized, when I thought, “Geez, I haven’t even coughed yet,” that it the cigarette had gone out.

So I re-lit it, first trying to strike the match I’d just used.  I needed to experience that this wouldn’t work to learn it.  And then I inhaled.  And coughed lightly.  It was confirmation that I’d done it right.

I watched the cars go by on Route 31, passing me by, not knowing what a ridiculous farce they were missing on the porch to the left.

My father’s friend had just died, and, naturally, I was thinking about him.  He lived on my road, past my house a ways, and I almost drove by his mailbox to see if it would look different.  I wondered how my dad would smoke his next cigarette, if Don’s death would change anything, and I thought maybe he’d inhale deeper, desperate for calming.  So I tried that.

And I tried some other things, too.  I held it between my index and middle fingers like my mom did–like a supermodel from the forties or thirties (before her time), and I looked at myself in the glass door to my dining room to see if I looked like her, and I kind of did.  In the reflection my eyes looked dark like hers and our faces, when cloudy like that, were almost mirror-images of each other.  My hair was blond and longer, but that disappeared in the reflection, too.  So then I let the smoke eek out the side of my mouth like she sometimes did.  But I felt like Popeye.

Then it was time to ash.  I tapped it lightly with my middle finger.  It was harder than it looked.

I asked my father often if he’d visited Don before he passed, and I hated to think he missed seeing him.  But he did.

When I inhaled the smoke, it burned in my lungs, a part of my body I’d been unaware of in a physical sense.  I felt them ignite.

My grandparents smoked cigarettes and got their money’s worth.  They were veteran smokers, breathing smoke in through their noses and mouths as though they could levitate into the air.

I watched the smoke twirl and dance away from my fingers and up towards the roof of my porch, and the cars on the road seemed to disappear until I realized I was no longer smoking, but watching the smoke snake around.  The dog whined at me from the door, wondering who I was.

I held it like a frat boy, or how my brother, Darrin, or my cousins held it, between index finger and thumb, like a joint.  This was easier, and I felt like I could hang with the cool kids.  I said, “Well, shit,” out loud in an accent no one I knew had.  Just to see.  Then I looked in the mirror, but it didn’t look like me.

So I thought about my parents again, where all my memories of smoking sit.

I sat down on the green porch steps and suddenly, in my mind, I was asking my mom for help, and she said, “Wait a minute,” from the side of her mouth that held her cigarette, so it really came out as, “Waymit,” until she set the smoke down in an ashtray and came towards me with her hands outstretched, ready to do what ever I needed.

And I thought of my dad because, for me, patchouli and smoke are indistinguishable from one another, and I wondered what my dad would have said if Don had just waited one more minute.  Or if my dad had not waited one more minute.  I bet he tried not to think of this.

And then I exhaled hard and thought, maybe Don looked like this, a twirl of smoke gone up in the air.

When I left my dad this afternoon, just before I sat in my car, ready to smoke a cigarette, my dad said something I knew he meant, that Don’s in a better place.  I believe it.

But I wish he would have said something else.  Like, “Shit.”

I imagined he said that to my mom, and she hugged him.  And then, they went to the porch and had a smoke.

I exhaled and stamped out the cigarette with my fingers, just as awkwardly as I’d smoked it, the whole thing, on the large rusted milk jug on my porch.


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.