Teaching Creative Writing in Unexpected Places

When I was in San Diego I had the opportunity to join my friend (novelist, founder of DimeStories, and literary hostess and pie maker extraordinnaire) Amy Wallen for her PEN In the Classroom gig at the City Heights Community Center.  She teaches two groups of high school students who are participating in a marine biology discovery (after school) program that will land them in Bahia de los Angeles, Baja Mexico** over the summer.  There they will participate in research projects and experience marine life and science in a way that no text book can offer.  Then, they write about their experiences– hence the creative writing component.  At the end of the program, they publish an anthology through the PEN program.

Amy said I could write with the class but I had packed 12 shirts (only 6 of which I wore) and had a collection of 27 pens and pencils…but did not have a notebook with me.  Embarrassing for a writer to wander around the world with nothing to write in!

Amy also asked me to tell the kids about my MFA program and read an excerpt from my dissertation.  I chose a short piece about my time working at Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater–a cautionary tale about a why you should go to college and not get a job dressed as a giant rat.  I left out the part about smoking pot in a Chevy van in the parking lot after work, but I think my description of the stench inside the Chuck E. costume may have scared them away from working as any kind of character. Even Disney.

What I love about this program is that the goal is not to make novelists out of these kids (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but rather the goal is to give the students tools they can use in other areas of their academic, and later their professional careers.  Writing is important no matter what field you go into.  And why not learn to write creatively?  As Amy Wallen wrote in the Spring 2011 anthology’s forward, “Creative writing and science may not seem like suitable partners, but on the contrary, it is the imagination that allows the scientist to believe in the unknown, in exploration, and in discovery. Each week the students learned how to describe the world around them, how to express what they saw, touched, heard, and felt. As they shared in ink what they learned and experienced, they also gained the skills to make science accessible to not just their peers, but to all their fellow human beings.”

** When I was an undergrad way back when, I had the opportunity to take a summer session marine biology class in Bahia.  We snorkled, dove for sand dollars, and explored the waters in the Sea of Cortez encountering manta rays, turtles, and squid.  We slept under the most star-filled sky I’ve ever seen in my life.  And, we managed to find the only store open (and selling beer) during siesta.




Are Road Trips Ever What We Think They Will Be?

Judy skyped in for the meeting, but her video had frozen so we posed like her for the photo (tho some of us don't know our left from our right)

On Friday, April 13 I successfully defended my dissertation, “Reconstructing My Mother.” It still seems so surreal…  I’m not sure if any of my committee members actually asked me questions!  Perhaps I was in an Ojo daze. My sister had come a few days earlier and we’d gone up to Ojo Caliente for a couple of days of soaking in mineral hot springs, massage and yoga.  And to take my mind off the impending defense.  In my head I knew I would pass, but I was afraid I would cry (I did) and not speak articulately about my work (which I think I didn’t).  Thanks everyone for the support and comments on my work. I’m eager to dig in and get the next revision(s) done.

Anyway, after my sister left I had planned a road trip. To San Diego. I just got it in my head I would drive to San Diego rather than fly and rent a car. This of course meant two days out and two days back…  and fewer days in So Cal.

Thankfully my friend Georgia came along for the ride and kicked in for gas money.  We stopped in Tucson on the way out, and I got to see my friend Caroline– who treated me to an awesome dinner of margaritas and munchies at a local cantina (with a lovely outdoor patio).  Georgia was such a good sport, she even humored my attempt to drive home the scenic route, avoiding Phoenix….  it was lovely, but long!  You can see from her smile she’s good fun to have around.

In San Diego I was a bit of a vagabond, staying first with Julie and Mirna and Baby Emma, then with Ralph, then with Amy and Eber.  I had dinner with Karin, fish tacos with Susann. I also caught up with other friends at the LA Times Book Festival where we participated in a showcase event at the LA Times Book Festival.  We had an awesome lineup of readers and it was a lot of fun.  Georgia and I represented Albuquerque, and I think we did rather well.

But the thing about road trips is, well, you spend a lot of time on the road. And in the car.  And my body is not as young as it once was.  Sitting for hours on end makes things ache.  And four of my days away were spent on the road…  again, thankfully Georgia was a lot of fun to hang out with!

Now, I have to face reality of what’s next.

Job interview scheduled for Monday.


Last night I decided to take a look at my manuscript for the first time since turning in the copies to my committee members.  I re-read the preface, and began flipping through the pages looking for excerpts to read aloud at the defense.

And I know I’m writing about grief, and death and cancer, but geeeez everything is so heavy, so serious.   Where is the humor I was going to sprinkle throughout?  Where are the lighter scenes that were supposed to provide emotional balance?

And why didn’t I fix that clunky passage?  Why did I think white space made for a good transition?  Does that scene really belong there?

At the defense I will be asked to first talk about my process, the creation of this thing called my manuscript which is still a work in progress.  Then I will be asked to read an excerpt aloud. For ten minutes, I think.

I could read the first chapter, that would be the easy choice.  It has context, it sets the stage, so to speak, for what comes next.  I’d also like to read something that includes my sister since she’ll be in the room…  but maybe that will be too hard to do.

The thing I’m worried about most is that I will cry.  I’ve already teared up at Elizabeth’s defense, and at Tanaya’s defense.  The whole thing, the process, the work, the future, is overwhelming emotionally.  I’m proud of my achievement, and so glad my sister will be here with me, but I can’t help but wish my parents were here to celebrate with me too.  (Though who’s to say I would have taken this path had they been alive.)

The defense–in some ways even more so than the graduation ceremonies–marks the end of a chapter.  The defense is the culmination of the work I came here to do.  The graduation is just pomp and circumstance, and while I understand the need for ritual, for ceremony, the desire to wear a black polyester gown and a funny hat, the defense marks the completion of an important milestone for me as a writer.  I have a fully formed draft of a book I’ve been working on in some way since 2005. I have an idea of what the story is and I can see a shape to the narrative.  Putting the work into a physical form, printed pages coil bound that I can touch, and carry around with me, make notes on, has helped me see what needs to be done yet.  I even already, before my committee has made a single comment, have my own list of To Dos for the manuscript.


New Chapters

Friday at 8:30 a.m. I sent “Reconstructing My Mother,” my 226 page manuscript, aka my dissertation, off to the Copy Center where they will print out and coil bind 7 copies for me to distribute to my committee and my colleagues.  A part of me is pleased. I have completed the thing that is the last step towards getting my MFA degree.  There is a sense of accomplishment to have put together so many words and crafted it into a story.  During the past year I was at times overwhelmed, frustrated and proud.  Some days I felt “at peace” with the work, confident that no matter what state it was in at the deadline, it would be defensible.  Other days I wanted to take another year to work on the manuscript, embarrassed by the clunky prose, the incomplete scenes, the awkward transitions, the vague characterizations.

There is so much work yet to be done. I know that already.  There are scenes that I’d written over the last few years that did not make it into this draft, and I want to find a way to fit them in.  There are new scenes I want to write.  The last chapter that I threw together…  at present has only 6 pages to it. It needs more.  I’m eager to get back to work on it, but I’m forcing myself to wait, to hear what my committee has to say about it when I defend it on Friday, April 13.

Friday afternoon I attended the first of this season’s dissertation defenses, my colleague Elizabeth Tannen.  After the defense we all gathered at Kelly’s a local restaurant/bar with a large patio, and a wait staff accustomed to large raucous parties.  On Monday Tanaya will defend, then Suzanne, then me, David, Cassie….

I was wandering around in a daze Saturday morning when my friend Sam texted me, “Wheee!! How you doing? Post pardem depression?”

You see Sam finished her dissertation a year earlier. She knew exactly how I was feeling. It was like post pardem depression in a way.  When she asked if I wanted to be left alone, or if I needed company I chose company…  and she took me out to lunch. I even made her pick the place, and pick me up.  I just couldn’t make a decision. And good friend that she is, she obliged.

I’m still wandering around in a daze, but I’m doing laundry so at least I’m being somewhat productive.

So now what?

I feel at a loss, not sure what to do.

I  have other projects to work on:

I need to find a job.  I applied for a tech writer position at UNM, and I’m hopeful that I will at the very least get an interview.  My cover letter kicked ass! (if I do say so myself).  But I’m not naive.  And I know that one application does not a serious job search make.

Publishing my work.  I could take some of my chapters and craft them into standalone pieces and submit! Like the lottery, ya gotta play to win.

DimeStories. I have a lot of ideas I’d like to work on, the first of which is attending the L.A. Times Book Festival on April 21 where I will get my 3 minutes of fame.

Searching for Rosie.  I started this blog in anticipation of my next book.  I’ve always thought that the project would be perfect for a grant…

Gift of Freedom Award.  The A Room of Her Own foundation grant that has been on hiatus is now available again. the deadline is November, but the application is arduous, not to mention highly competitive…  but if I don’t apply I KNOW I won’t get it.

So even with all these projects, I am feeling sad.  So many of my friends will be graduating, then leaving:  moving back to where they came from, moving on to something else and I don’t know what my life here will look like after May.  I have other friends in town, but these colleagues from the program have been such an integral part of my life here, and part of my development as a writer, I can’t help but feel the loss already.