The Most Important Things I Learned in Grad School

Antioch-University-Los-AngelesThis week is my last official week of graduate school.

I’ve been working on my MFA in Writing for a few years now, and it’s been quite a journey. I began my grad school adventure at a different institution and ended up transferring into Antioch University, Los Angeles’ program in December 2012. The school has been a great fit for me and a wonderful experience overall. I’ve gotten to attend tons of amazing lectures, worked one-on-one with helpful mentors, and met some awesome writer friends.

While attending lectures this week, I noticed the idea of transformation coming up quite a bit. Todd Mitchell, a YA author, told us that what readers really want is to see the transformation of a character and the ways they change throughout the narrative. Your job as an author is less about chronicling the story and struggle, and more about showing the main character dealing with those situations and evolving over time.

I think transformation is an especially important concept for those of us who write memoir. For several years, I’ve been working on a memoir about my struggles with mental illness as a child and teenager. At first, I set out to write my story in the hopes that readers would find it interesting, informative, and relatable. But I soon discovered that my memoir needs to be more than a telling of events and stories. My memoir also has to show the transformation I went through from childhood to adulthood, with an emphasis on how I coped and survived.

As readers, and as human beings, transformation is something we love to watch. When we step inside of a book, we look for assurance that we have the potential to make it through anything that life throws at us. We hope to learn how others transform and evolve.

Although I’m still figuring out how to articulate the transformation I went through between childhood and young adulthood, I’m beginning to see the transformation I experienced between starting and finishing grad school. When I started graduate school, my memoir was a mess of scenes and anecdotes. Now, I have a structure for the entire book and two-thirds of it finished. When I started grad school, I wasn’t sure whether anyone would care about what I wanted to say. After hearing so many fellow students, mentors, and even strangers express their interest in my story, I know there’s a place and need for my memoir.

The biggest transformation, though, has been the rise in my confidence as a writer. I came into the program unsure of my voice and whether I’d ever be able to pull off the project that had been so important to me for so long. Not only is that project almost finished now, but I feel confident that I’ll be able to find a good home for it. There were so many times I wanted to give up on this memoir, but I couldn’t, and I won’t. I believe in the project, and thankfully, so do others.

So, what’s next for me? I’ll continue to offer freelance editing services to academic and creative writers. I will also be completing Antioch University’s online teacher training, which includes teaching a 4-week online memoir writing class this October (more on that soon). Right now, I’m considering going the traditional publishing route for my memoir to see what happens. Maybe later I’ll take a shot at indie publishing. The most important thing to me right now is staying open to whatever possibilities come my way.

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Lessons Learned from Starless Skies

photoA few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I took a trip to Sedona, AZ. We’d both heard about the infamous vortexes and New Age culture, but we’re not into that scene. Our decision to go was based on cheap hotel availability, drivability, beautiful landscapes, and the ability to see the stars at night.

That last one was probably the biggest draw for us. We share a love of all things space. Since we’re both long-time residents of Los Angeles, our opportunities to see more than a handful of stars in the night sky have been few and far between. Because of Sedona’s isolation and elevation, we were promised an amazingly clear view.

Before we left, my mother excitedly informed me that we’d enjoy a full moon while we were there. When I shared this with my boyfriend, he said, “Oh…that’s not good.” Amateur stargazers, such as myself, might not know that a full moon emits so much light that the stars get drowned out. To our great disappointment, this was true. The moon looked lovely, but the sky was too bright to see stars.

Even though we both love the moon, those nights in Sedona, we found ourselves cursing it. I tried not to get too discouraged. We did research and tried to see if there was a gap between the sunset and moonrise we could try to catch.

IMG_3114In the meantime, we enjoyed what Sedona had to offer. We climbed to the top of a tall red rock and looked out at the city. We took a day trip to the Grand Canyon. We visited a vortex and didn’t feel anything funny. Then we got into a long debate about vortexes and whether places or people have special energy.

But we didn’t see many stars. The last night of the trip was the one night we had a big enough gap to possibly see some between the sunset and moonrise. We went outside after a dinner of burgers and rattlesnake bites to see if it was finally our chance to glimpse what we’d come for.

The sky was completely black, all the stars hidden behind an impenetrable haze. We both started laughing, finally surrendering to the fact that we were out of luck. We still drove to a lookout point and located a couple of stars peeking out between the clouds. We shared a nice, quiet moment beneath the dark sky.

I told my boyfriend I was sorry we didn’t get to see the thing we most wanted to see. He assured me that it was okay. We had a lovely time, and being together was what really mattered.

A week later, a spectacular meteor shower was scheduled to take place. I lamented our bad timing. We could have had front row seats to something incredible. We tried to see the shower in Los Angeles, but were once again met by a hazy, dim sky. This time, I didn’t laugh. It just seemed unfair. But it turned out that the shower wasn’t as spectacular as promised, so even if we’d been somewhere with a better view, there wouldn’t have been much to see. There was also a wildfire in Sedona, which we would have encountered if we’d been there a week later.

So, everything balanced out. We wanted to see the stars, but had to settle for a fun trip. I got upset about timing, but later discovered that it actually could have been a disaster to go later.

Sometimes I think things happen for a reason, but usually think it’s completely random. The thing I still struggle with is wishing I made different decisions when things don’t work out. But we’ll have other chances to see a bright, clear sky. I could even assure myself that it will happen when it’s meant to, or that there’s a reason things worked out the way they did.

I don’t necessarily want to, though. I’d rather be okay with accepting and waiting.

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On (Not) Being a Failure: My Post-College Journey

When I graduated college in 2009, I had a plan. I would move back home and live with my mom until I found an entry-level job as a writer or editor. Then I would get an apartment, maybe move in with my college boyfriend, and begin my “adult” life. I anticipated that all of this would take about six months, max.

Things didn’t exactly work out that way. Turns out, there weren’t really any entry-level jobs in my field because of the recession. There weren’t any jobs, period. I spent over a year applying to dozens of positions, anything I was even remotely qualified for. The result of my search was some sporadic editing gigs, a very-part-time job teaching computer lessons to old people, and an ill-fated administrative assistant position for a company that almost immediately asked me to compose college admission essays for non-English-speaking students. I left that one more deflated than ever.

I didn’t know back then that I wasn’t alone in my aspiring adult struggles. Despite the fact that some of my friends were able to find jobs and be independent, many of these fell through, or were exaggerated. Personally, I tried to avoid telling anyone that I lived at home and only worked part-part time doing freelance editing gigs. I was embarrassed. I still am embarrassed. Because, going on five years later, that part of the equation hasn’t changed.

Yep, folks. I still live at home.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been stuck in the same place all these years. But that’s not really true. Because I couldn’t find a full-time job, I decided to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. I’ve been able to spend a lot of time writing, taking classes, and working on this site. My college relationship ended shortly after I graduated, but after a few years of dating disasters and discouragements, I found an awesome boyfriend who is always there for me and is my number one fan.

\It’s because of said boyfriend that I felt inspired to write this post. I’ve been so discouraged lately, feeling like nothing has changed, that I’ll never be truly successful or independent. As I wrap up my graduate degree, edit my two ongoing manuscripts for publication, and begin to contemplate re-entering the job market, all those fears about being behind, being unsuccessful, and being a failure have returned, full force.

I want to be an “adult” so badly. I know my boyfriend is right when he tells me that no one is where they thought they’d be. There are others out there going through what I’m going through, especially those pursuing creative endeavors. I really just want to be a writer who makes enough as a freelance editor and writing teacher to support that dream. It’s still not clear whether that will be possible or enough. Right now, it isn’t.

I don’t necessarily have anything motivational to end on. I just wanted to be honest about my new adult journey because I don’t want to hide anymore. As twenty-somethings, we’ve been led to believe that adulthood works a certain way, and that it has a timeframe that must be followed. If you’re not able to follow that timeframe, you’re a failure.

Even though I feel like a failure at times, I’m really just trying to find my way in a world that’s changing and uncertain. I’m lucky to have a mother who supports me and my dream of being a writer. I’m also very lucky that I have a few good friends and a wonderful boyfriend who helps me feel accomplished and talented whenever I feel down and hopeless. There are a few parts of the equation I’ve gotten right, but none showed up the way I expected them to. I can only hope that’s true for everything else, that the pieces will fall into place when they’re ready to, and when I’m ready for them to.

Are you still trying to figure out this whole adulthood thing? Or are you someone who went through this already and came out on the other side? 

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How To Keep Rejection From Eating Your Soul

If there’s one thing that all writers can agree upon, it’s that getting rejected sucks.

As someone who tends to spend years tolling away on long-form works like novels and memoirs, I haven’t played the literary magazine submission game too often. Now and then, I feel compelled to send out a few pieces, and most don’t get accepted. I didn’t mind as much in the past because I stuck to poems and short stories. However, this time I did a submission blast specifically for essays and excerpts from my memoir.

Sending out such personal and sensitive work for the first time was difficult. While I don’t have much of a problem with others reading about my life (even the embarrassing, weird, and awkward parts of it), having that same work rejected from the get-go was a much more frightening prospect.

gummi-bearAnd I did get rejections. So far, I’m 0 for 5 with 2 submissions pending. When the negative responses started to trickle in, I did lose heart. Those moments you receive rejections are the ones you most question being a writer…well, not including the ones when you get so frustrated while trying to write something that you put your face in your hands, groan repeatedly, give up for the day and eat a bunch of gummy bears while watching Gilmore Girls reruns.

Actually, I might be the only one who does this. But I’m sure you have a similarly strange frustration coping process. (Tell me in the comments!)

I’m not going to pretend that this process didn’t shake my confidence. It did. However, as I’ve been posting about this endeavor on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve received many comments from people who have also struggled with rejections. Everyone has assured me that not only is it perfectly normal, but that in many ways rejection makes you stronger as a person and a writer.

This response from talented memoirist and craft book author Sue William Silverman was my favorite: “I received a gazillion rejections before I received my first acceptance…and I still receive rejections. It’s just part of this being an artist thing we signed up for. Just remember how subjective it is. The important thing is to never, ever give up!”

That’s really the key thing to remember when submitting work anywhere, be it a literary magazine, agent, or publisher – it’s subjective. A lot of the time, a publication is overwhelmed with submissions. Sometimes, your writing doesn’t match the reader’s personal preference. Rejections don’t mean you’re a bad writer. They just mean you haven’t found the right home for your work yet. The right home for your work might even be indie or self-publishing. You have the power to accept your own work and allow readers to decide for themselves whether they like it.

My take-away from this submission/rejection process is to:

1. Keep working on your craft. The writing itself is ultimately what matters most.

2. Keep submitting. Eventually, you will find a home and audience for your work if it’s well-written and meaningful.

3. Share your journey with others. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed by rejections. Getting those words of encouragement from my friends, fellow writers, and well-published authors is what saved me from spiraling into a pit of self-pity and defeat. Take advantage of this thing we call social media and reach out. It’s a much more effective coping strategy than eating gummy bears (and way less fattening).

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Why Writers SHOULD Blog About Writing

I’ve finally zeroed in on my biggest problem when it comes to blog writing. For years now, I’ve been hearing that writers shouldn’t blog about writing.

There are way too many blogs about writing, they say. Plus, only writers will read them. You’re trying to reach readers.

First of all, if my only reason for blogging is to use it as a platform to find readers, I might as well not even try to maintain a blog. My desire to promote myself and my future books isn’t quite strong enough to make me compose weekly blog posts. Unless I have something I truly need to share with the world, I can’t force myself to write about it.

snoopy-typewriter

While there’s more to my life than writing, it’s the form of expression that I feel most passionately about. Writing is the art I have been practicing and studying for most of my life. I’ve been obsessed with writing one particular book – a memoir about dealing with mental illness as a child and teenager – since I was 12. That project alone consumes a great deal of my thoughts, time, and energy.

If I’m not allowed to talk about writing, I’m not allowed to talk about one of the most important aspects of my life.

However, the piece of advice I see just as often as “don’t blog about writing” is “blog about something that you care about.” Jeff Goins wrote a great post about this. When I ask myself what I care about, writing is the first thing that comes to mind. And I don’t only care about writing as a form of expression; I explore and express everything else I care about through writing. Whether it’s relationships, family, understanding mental illness, finding a place I belong – I process my world and experiences through writing about them. And that process is something I find endlessly compelling and fascinating.

Henceforth, I give myself permission to blog about writing. And to anyone else out there struggling to figure out what they should blog about is…you’re allowed to write about whatever the hell you want. If you’re a writer who cares passionately about writing, you should feel free to blog about it. What draws readers to blogs is quality content, and quality content can only be created about the things you really know and care about. For a lot of writers I know, that thing is writing.

So, don’t ever let any so-called “rules” of self-expression stop you, because that’s all those rules will ever do – stop you.

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