My friend Linda asked me to describe my graduate school program—in the midst of my academic notes from August, I found this paragraph that serves as a nice metaphor:
The dizziness is not the altitude. The dizziness is my world as a tilt-a-whirl, the sudden swing to the side, 360, 360 degrees again and so fast. Long ago, that ride made me laugh and clap my hands, if I was not too crushed into the side of my spinning red car. Perhaps like the amusement park ride, I bought the ticket hoping for the adventure, and am now complaining of my spinning head.
But with a smile creeping up—the dizzy is what I paid for.
My MFA in Creative Writing is just over two years of schooling, including five “residencies,” or ten-day academic sessions. The residencies just happen to be located in exotic, beautiful locations, but that’s another story. (Tell you about the next one in a minute.)
In addition to the residencies, each school year is comprised of a Fall Quarter, a Winter Quarter, and a Spring Quarter. Each quarter is about three months long, with three due dates for “packets” per quarter. Each packet contains 20-25 pages of my creative writing, new or revised from the previous packet, plus any annotations I’ve finished from the quarter’s reading. This quarter I need to turn in twelve book “annotations.” An annotation is “a little bit like a writer’s journal. But thoughtful.” Hmmmmm. I’m still wrapping my head around this annotation-thing.
In addition to the annotations and the creative writing, I write one “critical paper” about a literary issue, 5-7 pages long, each quarter. In total, I’m turning in nearly 150 pages each quarter, and three quarters in a year equals nearly 450 pages, and my program is two years long. Whew!
Some of the books I’ve read and annotated so far:
The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
Modern American Memoir, edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley
Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative NonFiction, by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
(these titles are to help me understand the breadth, history and craft behind the great essays and memoirs—I’m reading to see how these writers do what they do.)
In addition I’ve read two “common readings” (books all the MFA students read and discuss together, the poets, the fiction writers, and the folks in my Creative NonFiction genre). Eliot’s The Four Quartets and a wild translation of Genesis by Robert Alter.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows does not count, unfortunately (though it did take quite a bit of time and energy, it’s not considered ‘literary’), and I struggled to put down the new fantasy novel Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet. (I heard him read the first chapter in Santa Fe, and I can’t wait until Christmas break to finish it!) Neither can I count my “professional” reading of crafting magazines.
I also read Dillard’s The Maytrees because I was begging for fiction, and I hope to move onto Scott Russell Sanders’ A Private History of Awe, and Reading Like a Writer. In addition, I’m expected to read The Image Journal of the Arts and Religion, and Books & Culture, which I read anyway, and Orion magazine is a favorite, filled with great writing.
My packets of writing are submitted to my faculty mentor, Leslie, and I hope to read her memoir Surviving the Island of Grace this quarter. She lives in Alaska, my school is in Seattle, and I still live north of Boston. As a freelance writer on the side, my magazine editors are in California and New York. It’s a beautiful internet world!
The next packet is due on Monday, then the final packet of this quarter is due in the first week of December. I’m still developing my topic for the critical paper.
In March, my next writing residency is on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. The guest faculty include Patricia Hampl, a notable creative nonfiction writer, and David James Duncan, one of my all-time favorite authors.
I’m still hoping to find a working “routine” for writing, but so far I’ve had no routine weeks! I’m still “unpacking” from a two-week sojourn to the Midwest, with children, and the coming week is filled with two special concert dates, Halloween, a second-grade Lantern Walk and one eight-year-old birthday party. Oh, and then that packet due date. Did I mention we might be ripping up the floor of our condo? After the birthday party.
Up to this past week, I’ve been madly in love with my writer’s life, and though I still am, I’m feeling the sweat on my brow, wondering how I will get this reading done. I miss writing as I did last year, and I need to re-assess that for next quarter, to make sure writing itself feels more central. But that’s all for later. For now, I read, I read, I read, and I look forward to the writing of fresh material, as soon as I get the chance to sit down without a fabulous book in my hands.
How does it feel? It feels great. It feels important and life-giving and like my life is an adventure once again. Go tilt-a-whirl, go. Dizzy, I can take.