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.



March Challenges

One of the challenges of March, for me here in Albuquerque is the coming of Spring, which means winds–big gusty winds that unnerve me.  And, pollen ACHOO!.  (I didn’t have allergies like this in San Diego).

Anyway, another challenge THIS March is of course The Dissertation, which if you are a regular reader of my blog you know is in progress, and will be defended on Friday April 13. (yikes!)

March also brings the Writers’ March, the brainchild of my dear friend and fellow writer Samantha Tetangco.  So this month I’m blogging over there for a regular column called Fridays with Jenn.  It’s mostly about writing, but it’s about life too.

If you’re a writer, join us!  It doesn’t cost anything, you set your own goals (make sure they are attainable and sustainable) and you’ll get daily inspiration for your writing and the support of a cadre of writers all dedicated to their craft.  Check out the Current Challengers page to see what everyone else is up to.

Reconstructing MYSELF

I’ve been working on this project, Reconstructing My Mother, since 2005 when I signed up for a memoir class at the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  The instructor letter said, among other things, “Send 10-25 pages of your manuscript…. bla bla bla”

Yeah. After the word “manuscript” my vision blurred then my brain went into panic mode.  MANUSCRIPT?!  I’m supposed to have a manuscript?  

And even six and a half years later I still sometimes hear that voice in my head that says  MANUSCRIPT?!  I’m supposed to have a manuscript? Only now I really have to have one in order to complete this MFA.

When I describe this manuscript I have some nice little marketing spiel I’ve come up with that explains it:

In RECONSTRUCTING MY MOTHER we follow Jennifer’s journey to get to know her mother who died when she was 13.  Set against the backdrop of turning 40, watching her only sister battle breast cancer and losing her father, ultimately the book is about Jennifer getting to know herself.

I remember in that first workshop at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference  Greg (who is now my adviser at UNM) said in his critique (outloud in front of everyone):  “Jennifer is searching for something she’ll never find.”  He wasn’t being mean (though it did make me cry and think what the F*&% does he know?!).  He was enthusiastic about the story potential in my work.   I can’t even count how often since that first workshop I have heard him say something along the lines of:  “If a guy goes on a journey to get something, and everything works out great and he gets it….   it’s not a STORY.”

But the more I write this thing, the more I realize it is not only about “getting to know myself” it’s about RECONSTRUCTING myself.  I didn’t understand that many of the obstacles I would run up against would be my own self:  insecurity, fear, procrastination, you know, the ones I wrote about in the post from three days ago…  I didn’t understand how important  “getting to know myself” is in terms of creating a memoir with an engaging voice rich with reflection and wisdom, sprinkled with a little humor–at least that is my hope for the work.

I’m having to dig deep, go back to dark places in the past, and places that are just gray and muddled, the edges of those memories softened over time.  I don’t want to dwell in the past, but in order to understand the present, to understand myself, I need to understand where I come from.  I need to cull through those memories, those defining events in my life and determine if they fit in this story:

Nothing is less real than realism.
It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis,
that we get at the real meaning of things.

~Georgia O’Keefe

I am not broken, I am not torn apart in bits, but I need to identify the pieces  and reconstruct them into a narrative arc that tells a story, that tell the story I want to tell about loss and what it means to navigate grief, and what happens when we don’t go on that grief journey…


The Next Big Thing

Why is it when you I have a project due, something BIG like, say a dissertation,
you I suddenly find other things to do?  Bigger, shinier things?   Instead of  just finishing the thing, I dream about what’s next, I plan my garden, I get BIG ideas–I have a million of them, none with earning potential, of course.

In fact, my whole life is full of unfinished projects in the closet:  a half crocheted afghan, a beaded necklace with no clasp, a jacket that needs new buttons…  I have boxes and boxes filled with artistic potential:  art supplies, beads, found objects, magazines. And the writing:  essays, poems, stories languishing in files on my computer or half formed in my head.

Writing has become my metaphor for life.  All the obstacles I engage in the process of writing are the same ones I find myself up against in my own life, obstacles which are for the most part self-made, obstacles which I must learn how to overcome in order to find success.   The one I’m up against now is my desire to quit, I’m battling a compulsion to go drop this book and go on to the next project, find a job, anything to avoid finishing this thing….

But I know it’s all about fear.  If I finish this dissertation, and then turn it into a publishable book (or at least something I can proudly send off to an agent) I will have to succeed or fail on the merits of my work. I won’t be able to tell myself that the reason I didn’t succeed was because I didn’t try, or because I didn’t really want it in the first place. I will have confront my propensity for unfinished projects.  I will have put my heart and soul into this thing, this book, and I will have taken it as far as I can take it…  and still, it may not get out there into the world.

And this scares me.


May I have a second (or seven) of your time?

Not calling after a date is one thing.   “Forgetting” to return a call (or two or twenty) from that friend who you now realize is craZy (and not in a good way) is   socially acceptable.  But not replying, in any way shape or form, to not just a job application (from a highly qualified candidate) but to a follow up email, is downright unprofessional.

I realize every open job these days must get a gazillion applicants.  (Though in this case it was a Graduate Assistantship on campus with a limited pool of applicants: only graduate students would be eligible.) I know everyone is busy busy busy, overwhelmed with email, and probably even doing extra work because budget cuts necessitate doing not only your own job, but the job of your co-worker who was laid off or not replaced when he retired.  I know that you don’t care about my employment status or my feelings.

But still.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

And if one of those highly qualified applicants wrote a personal email follow up inquiring if the position had been filled SIX  SEVEN DAYS AGO….  well then, I think a reply email would be the professional response.  You know, because this is a business.  Or a university, or whatever.

How long does to take to hit the reply button, type “Yes,” then tap the send button?

Seven seconds.  That’s all it would take. (I timed it,because that’s the kind of detail oriented person I am.)


 January 28 is the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Sometimes I forget, but my body always remembers.  I become achy. I want to hunker down in my own house, stay in bed longer than usual.  Here in Albuquerque it’s easy to chalk it up to winter–January is the coldest month–but it’s neither winter nor the cold that makes me weepy.

It’s been 34 years and most of the time I don’t get bogged down with grief and longing for something, for my mom, but writing this dissertation means I’ve been dredging up the memories; I’ve been deliberately putting myself back in that time when I was a messed up teenager.

Last week I was at the Children’s Grief Center, where I co-facilitate a bereavement group for teens.  During our facilitator check-in I mentioned that the anniversary of my mom’s death was coming up.  I said I was feeling a little sad, but I was glad to be there as a volunteer.   A couple of people came up to me after the check-in and asked if I was okay.  I said “Yes,” and I meant it.

And then, two days later I had a meltdown in front of my professor and two of my colleagues.   Right there at Winnings Coffee.  It was weird.  I started the meeting feeling good about my pages, about the state my dissertation was in.  (I’ve made peace with the fact that at the time of my defense it won’t be perfect, but it will be defendable. )  We were talking about my latest revisions, and all of the sudden a thought came into my head–that my mom wouldn’t be there.  That my dad wouldn’t be there.  I felt this flush of sadness simply overwhelm my body and I started to cry.  And then I felt stupid for crying.

I know grief comes in waves, and I know that even years later you can feel the loss, that sometimes something triggers the feeling of loss.  But Geez! it’s been THIRTY FOUR YEARS.

I explained to my colleagues that the following day was the anniversary of my mom’s death, and to please just understand that sometimes I feel emotionally unstable at this time of year….  I dried my tears, pulled myself together, and we moved on.

The next morning Suzanne called.   I was buried under my down comforter listening to the radio and just about to start feeling guilty for not being up and about…

“I know you said that today is the anniversary of your mother’s death.  I don’t know if you do anything special….”

“No. Mostly I just feel weepy,”  I said.  Since I’ve been volunteering at the Grief Center, and writing this memoir, I’m much more aware of these kinds of feelings, and much more willing to be open about them, speak of them matter-of-factly.

She invited me out for a walk and showed up an hour later, holding a lavender plant, our mutual friend Cassie in tow.  We spent the morning walking along the Bosque trail, talking and laughing.

A four mile walk may not be something specific I would choose to do to honor my mom, but it was great way to hang out with good friends, get fresh air, enjoy my favorite part of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande (the only place where there is water) and not feel alone.


February 1 (today) would have been my Dad’s 79th birthday.

This anniversary isn’t as tough emotionally.  I had more time with my dad. He was older when he died (though he could have lived longer had he taken better care of himself).   I’m spending the day working on my dissertation, the thing that will get me the MFA degree.  My dad worked hard, worked a lot, he was smart. He had two master’s degrees, so I think he’d be proud.

Maybe I’ll go for a walk later….

Revising, revisiting, rewriting

The comment from my professor and the chair of my dissertation committee, scrawled at the bottom of a section titled “Baking Banana Bread,” and barely legible said:

“I think this section needs to do more.”

But WHAT? I wanted to scream.

Instead, I pondered, I mulled, I percolated, I discussed with friends.  Did I need this section at all? Was it repeating something I’d already expressed in the section on making Mom’s Chicken Divan?  Could I make it say something different?

Could I, should I “kill my darlings?”

The hardest part of revising is knowing when to let it go, and knowing when to keep pushing through, moving blocks of text around, re-writing, adding and removing words, deepening and broadening the ideas.  And of course, knowing when it’s done.

But is it ever done?  Over burgers and beer the other night with my friend Samantha Tetangco we spent a good amount of time talking about  The Dissertation.  Sam finished hers last year; this year she’s been teaching English at UNM.  She is still working on what was her dissertation, and is now her novel-in-progress.  She’s working on it diligently.

We talked about a panel we’d both attended at the 2010 AWP conference:  a group of writers talking about AFTER the MFA. It was eye-opening.  They’d all spent a few more more years revising their work before getting their books published.

A few more years? I thought then.  I’ve already been working on this damn book since 2005.  It was discouraging.

But now, as I think about the most immediate deadline in my future–  the dissertation defense–it is encouraging to think that my dissertation does not need to  be ready to run to a publisher or an agent.  Sure, I want my dissertation to be the best it can be. Yes, I want to present good work to my committee.  Of course I will spend hours each day preparing for my defense (which means writing).  But it doesn’t have to be perfect.

What I do need to work on is making sure that I don’t quit after the dissertation, that I find a way, even if like Sam I only write an hour a day, to keep moving forward, keep pushing, revising, revisiting, rewriting until I’ve made something I could take to a publisher or an agent….  at which point he or she will probably want me to revise and rewrite once again, maybe twice.

It always comes back to this:  that writing is a lot like life, we’re always revising. If not, we might as well give up all together.