Writing the World, Sight Unseen

By Kerry Kijewski

I am admitting my mistake here and now. I did what I swore I’d never do. I was thoughtless and careless enough to have a drink next to my precious laptop. Yes, I swore I would never do that because my laptop is how I reach out, express myself, and how I’m given a voice.

KerryNowI knew the truth, deep down, but as long as I didn’t ask the computer repair shop the final fate of my Macbook, I could live in the hope that all was not lost. I was given the verdict. The key to my self-expression was gone. It was no one else’s fault but my own.

My blog has been the only place I have to speak up on everything I felt I needed to say. I could also surf the Internet, and anything I ever needed to know I could learn at the push of a few single key strokes.

It felt like I had lost a limb. Okay, so those who have literally lost an arm or a leg might not agree, but living without sight, a laptop gave me back a lot of what I was missing for so long. I couldn’t simply pick up a pen and paper, like people have done long before the invention of the modern technology we’ve all come to depend on. I had no real way to release all the thoughts and the feelings I had inside. Immediately I missed writing my blog, something I had been doing regularly, at least once or twice a week, for the last year or more.

I found myself taking out my old, heavy-duty Perkins Brailler, my own version of a pen and pad of paper. As I returned to this relic of days gone by, to write the rough draft of this guest post, I thought long and hard about what it meant to be without the tool I had come to rely on so, so much. It is a miracle that I have these options for expressing myself. Without them, I don’t know where I would be or what I’d do. Still, it’s a reminder of the ways I compensate for being a writer who doesn’t have sight.

Kerry6yearsI used to see colour, bright and distinctive: blues, greens, red, and yellow. I saw the faces of my friends and family and the large print on the page. Over the years, as I began to switch from loving to draw to loving to write, I slowly lost this acuity. Now I am left to imagine, in as much detail as possible, all that I no longer see like everyone else. I think back to what those details looked like, and I try and I try to incorporate that into my writing.

Always though, at the back of my mind and sometimes at the front of it, I worry that my writing will be lacking something important, something that any readers of mine will immediately notice, that they won’t be able to live without. I fear I won’t be able to provide a well-rounded sensory experience. I can try my hardest to include details of a character’s physical features or the expression in someone’s eyes or a smile on his or her lips. I can imagine how that might look, and I can give it my best, but still not do those things justice.

I fear it will be automatically obvious, as someone is reading, that I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. A fraud, that’s the word for it. I am an impostor, someone who thinks they can fool any unsuspecting reader, as if I know what I’m describing, when really I am grasping at distant recollections of what I used to know. I try to focus on what I can contribute. I know how to write about emotions and feelings. Is that enough to build a story on? How can I give my reading audience a full experience, worth their time and attention?

I can write about the tone of someone’s voice or the way it feels when a loved one reaches out with a comforting hand – I can write about how a summer breeze tickles the cheek; or how the spring air smells after it rains; or how fresh strawberries taste on the tongue.

Are these things enough? Is it worth my time and energy, describing a look or an expression, when these no longer come naturally to my own colourless, dim and faded memory? These things are ghostly imprints of what was once there.

The timing of spilling that sticky liquid all over my precious laptop seemed horrible and yet, it forced me to face not being able to say what I wanted to say, when I wanted to say it. It also made me think more about the ways I adapt to my situation and how I manage to say all that I wish to say anyway.

– – –

Kerry is a lover of books and of the written word. She was born blind, but writing helps her to see life just a little more clearly. She writes fiction, memoir, movie and music reviews, interviews with interesting people, and travel articles on her blog, Her Headache. To Kerry, life is often one giant headache, both painful and beautiful. She has a Certificate of Creative Writing and lives in Ontario, Canada, with her literary-themed dog and cat: Dobby and Lumos.

See You in June

roompaintingDear blog readers,

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I’ll need to take a hiatus from this blog for a little while. I’m hoping to be back around the beginning of June. In the meantime, I’m recruiting a few talented writer friends to contribute guest posts in my absence. You can also peruse the archives, follow me on Twitter and/or Facebook, and check in on my Writing page for new publications. I have essays slated for release in the Los Angeles Times and The Manifest-Station that I’ll be adding there once they’re up.

See you soon!

Love,
Alana

 

(image credit: Pj Kneisel)

10 Young Adult Novels That Changed My Life

Young adult is a wonderful genre filled with compelling coming of age stories that I enjoy reading even as an adult. Some of you may not know that, in addition to memoir, I also write young adult fiction. In fact, I recently completed a YA manuscript that I’m beginning to query this week. In honor of that, I wanted to make a list of 10 young adult novels that have influenced me, my writing, and the way I see the world. Some of these novels I read when I was actually a young adult, but many are books I’ve read in my 20s.

Here are 10 young adult novels that have changed my life:

dangerous-angels 1. Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block

It’s hard to pick just one Francesca Lia Block novel for this list since all of her books have had a lasting influence on me, so I’ll go with the classic Weetzie Bat series. Francesca’s lush and gorgeous descriptions of Los Angeles helped me gain new insights into the city I moved to as a young adult. Her characters are vivid and captivating, and her stories are a wonderful blend of startlingly realistic and beautifully magical.

 

Jerry_Spinelli_-_Stargirl 2. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

This book has stuck in my mind despite reading it 15 years ago. I loved how quirky and relatable the characters in the novel were, and how immersed I felt into the distinctive and desolate Arizona landscape. The title character, Stargirl, is so wonderfully unique yet flawed, as we all are. She also played the ukulele before it was cool.

 

Perksofbeingwallflower1 3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

A classic. I still haven’t seen the movie, but I was pleased to see this fantastic, realistic coming of age tale make a comeback to a new generation of young adults.

 

 

9780545107082_zoom4. How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford

This YA novel is special because it doesn’t follow the typical twists, turns, and tropes you see in a lot of young adult books these days. It revolves around the friendship between a quiet girl and a strange boy. It was great to read a YA novel featuring a female protagonist that wasn’t about a romantic interest. It also has a hint of time travel.

 

157640325. Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos

This book has one of the strangest and most unique narrators I’ve ever followed through a novel. I could really relate to his observations about the world and the feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts he experiences as a teen. Mental illness is not something portrayed in any depth in most YA novels, and this book sheds some light onto those difficulties.

 

71LkLmxqgjL6. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I’ve been so pleased to see how successful and lauded this novel about the relationship between people of two different races has become. It’s not only beautifully written, but also addresses a pressing lack of diversity in literature available to young adults. The novel is painfully real and so amazingly crafted.

 

61U24vS7erL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_7. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Wow. I could not put this book down. Jandy deals with the loss of a sibling in such a visceral, truthful way that parts of it were hard to read. Yet there is lightness and hope throughout that carry the reader through the darkest times of the young protagonist’s life, and enough teenage love triangle drama to keep the pages turning.

 

1230478. Like the Red Panda by Andrea Seigel

I was so blown away by this book of a beautiful, misunderstood 17-year-old girl who is planning to end her life. As a teen who went through periods of severe depression and suicidal thoughts, this was the only book I found when I was that age that addressed those feelings, and did it in such a relatable way.

 

19508 GoldenCompass mainOCB9. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

As much as I enjoy a good fantasy novel, this is the only YA fantasy that made the top 10 list for me. I read it as a pre-teen, and it stayed with me all of these years. The movie doesn’t do this beautiful tale of a young girl in a magical, yet frightening world justice. I had a special fondness for her familiar, Pantalaimon. I remember wishing I had a talking animal companion like him…perhaps I still do.

The_Fault_in_Our_Stars10. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I’ve been a fan of John’s writing (and his VlogBrothers videos) since 2011. In fact, I went to a release party for this book before it exploded into the international bestseller and movie it became. But this book is not overhyped. It’s one of the few novels that made me stop reading and go take a walk just to look at the world around me and see it in a new way. The writing is simple yet engaging, and it tackles the realities of life, illness, and death in a way I’ve never seen done in any book before.

How to Get an MFA in Writing

In my last post, I talked about the journey I took to get my MFA in Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. In this follow-up post, I’m going to cover some of the basics for those looking to get their own MFA in Writing.

5821365833_87da1ed90dFirst of all, be prepared for a possibly long and definitely arduous process. MFA programs, especially ones with any kind of funding, are insanely competitive. I read that Iowa Writer’s Workshop is harder to get into than Harvard Medical School, with a 1-2% acceptance rate. The same goes for all of the top, funded programs.

Even programs with less funding and name recognition can be difficult to get into. I have friends who have applied to dozens of schools over several years and still haven’t gotten into the right place for them. However, it’s worth a shot to apply to a school if it looks like it would be a good fit, even if the odds are against you. This is especially true if you have a strong writing background and solid recommendations.

Deciding where to apply can be a feat of its own, especially with application fees ranging from $40-$120. Research is very important. Use sites like The MFA Blog and Poets & Writers’ MFA Database to help you create a list. Poets & Writers used to do an annual ranking, but those turned out to be based more on name recognition than any sort of objective quality assessment, so don’t take them very seriously. There are also some good books with advice and school listings including The Creative Writing MFA Handbook and the Low-Residency MFA Handbook.

Be sure to research individual schools by using their websites, looking them up on forums, and requesting to speak with current students. If location matters to you, keep that in mind as you’ll be living in that area for 2-3 years (unless it’s a low-res program). See who the program’s faculty members are, what their publications are like, and read their books. These are the people you’ll be working with and learning from, so choosing a school with accomplished faculty who write work you admire is a must. Many schools also have open houses and info sessions.

Some schools will require that you take the GRE and submit scores along with your application. In my experience, this was maybe 1 in 5. I ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the time and money to add a few more schools to my list, so I didn’t take the GRE.

Otherwise, you’ll typically submit a personal statement, writing sample, and 2-3 letters of recommendation. Send your best work and have at least two other people read it over, preferably people good with spelling and grammar. If you don’t know anyone like that, pay for a professional editor. Also make sure to customize each personal statement and secure recommendations from mentors, teachers, and/or professors who know you and your writing. Give them plenty of time to complete these recommendations and provide them with the envelopes and postage or online form information they need.

It’s also a good idea to check in on your financial situation and decide how much debt you’re willing to take on. Some schools aren’t very transparent about what kinds of funding options they offer, so you might have to email and ask. The top, competitive programs (typically based at large state universities) often offer TAships, which means teaching 1-3 undergraduate classes each term, usually in composition and sometimes creative writing. This does add to your workload substantially and is one of the reasons I opted for a low-res degree instead. I wanted to be able to focus on my writing.

Low-residency programs are a great option for people with jobs and/or families who can’t relocate (or just don’t want to). Although they typically offer limited funding, you do most of the writing from home, but get to commune with fellow writers, attend workshops and lectures, and work with mentors twice a year for 10-days at a time on the school’s campus. I found this model to be perfect for me even though I’m a younger writer without strong family ties or employment obligations.

Students in these programs range in age from 21-75, with the median probably being 35. I didn’t feel out of place being in my 20s, though. Everyone was very professional and accepting of others. I liked the independence and flexibility this kind of program provided me, and it was conducive to the way I work. Low-res programs still have strong writing communities, and you’d be surprised how much you bond with people you only see a couple times a year.

Those are just some basics to get you started on your MFA research. Feel free to leave specific questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them. Best of luck!

 

(photo credit: The year is over via photopin (license))

Why I Chose to Get an MFA in Creative Writing

IMG_0734Last week, I was invited to speak about writing and education at the California Writers Club of San Fernando Valley. Preparing for the talk gave me the opportunity to think more about MFA in Writing Programs: namely, if writers should get one, what kind of writers should get one, and how to go about getting one.

My decision to get an MFA in Writing was both natural and spontaneous. I’ve been writing creatively as far back as I can remember, and I’ve wanted to be a writer for about that long as well. But despite my desire to become a published author someday, I didn’t give much thought to graduate school. By the time I reached high school, I knew that I’d be majoring in English but that I’d probably pursue some other career while writing in my free time. I was realistic enough to know that most writers couldn’t support themselves through their work alone. I thought about becoming an editor for a publishing house or maybe a literary agent.

However, after graduating college in 2009, I realized that finding an entry-level job in Los Angeles with my BA in English Lit was going to be a lot harder than I expected. The economy was terrible and the job market was encountering major changes due to the crash and the ever-increasing and unpredictable rise of technology. Because I wasn’t able to find a full-time job, I began to give more thought to an MFA program.

Being in grad school would give me a chance to focus on my writing, complete the memoir I’d been dreaming about writing since the age of 12, and qualify me to teach writing at the college-level. Although teaching hadn’t been high on my list of potential job opportunities, I was lucky enough to land an internship teaching creative writing courses at a retirement community toward the end of my undergraduate studies. That experience showed me how much I enjoyed helping others find and share their stories.

At first, I applied to a few traditional MFA programs around the country just to see what happened. Unfortunately, I wasn’t accepted to any of the three programs I applied to. I know now that three is a very small list and MFA programs are incredibly competitive. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, for example, is harder to get into than Harvard Medical School with a 1-2% acceptance rate. When preparing for my next round of applications, I decided to put more consideration into low-residency MFA programs.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the low-residency format, these MFA programs are more geared toward writers who have families and jobs that would make relocating and studying full-time difficult. Since I was only in my early to mid-20s, I didn’t think that this format applied to me. But I soon realized that a low-residency program would give me a lot more freedom and flexibility than a traditional program. I could stay in Los Angeles and continue looking for work if I wanted to. I wouldn’t have to uproot my life and put everything on hold to get the degree. Low-residency programs are mostly done from home, with two 10-day residencies on the school’s campus each year for two years. At those residencies, you get to meet other students and the mentors you’ll be working with, attend lectures and writing workshops, and go to readings and parties.

The disadvantage of low-residency programs is that most of them don’t offer much, if any, scholarships or funding. Many traditional programs don’t offer this either, though, and the ones that do tend to be Harvard Medical School-level competitive. I spent a lot of time weighing the pros and cons, examining my financial situation and options, trying to decide whether it would ultimately be worth paying out of pocket and through loans for an MFA in Writing degree.

10850318_10152969359721908_5330319045155746042_nIt was a tough choice. But my dream was to become a published author, and I wanted to be qualified to teach writing at a college level so I could pursue teaching as a career path. I also longed to find a tight-knit literary community that I would be part of and would continue to be part of for the rest of my life. The MFA seemed like the best way to accomplish all of my goals.

I ended up at Antioch University Los Angeles’ low-residency MFA program and graduated in December 2014. It was a long journey to get there, but ultimately, I’m so glad that I arrived. I left the program with new friends, a finished manuscript, a tight-knit literary community, and a degree that allows me to teach writing at colleges and universities. I feel prepared to embark upon the next stage of my journey where I look for teaching jobs and submit my manuscript out for publication. I have no regrets.

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about MFA programs, the admission process, and provide links and resources that will help you decide if an MFA is right for you.