I didn’t know it, but I needed to write this book, and I couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t come to Albuquerque to pursue my MFA in creative writing.
I thought the book was going to be: hero (me) goes on a journey to reconstruct her mother—the mother that died when hero (me) was just 13. By sifting through family memorabilia, interviewing old friends and family, hero (me) gets what she wants– to know her mother as a person and finds some sense of closure.
What the book has turned into instead is an exploration of grief, specifically grief in children, the effects of loss on families, and of course my personal story driving this exploration. The book has become not a journey to reconstruct my mother, but rather a journey to reconstruct myself. These shifts in theme would not have happened had I not come to Albuquerque.
First, the MFA program and specifically working with Greg helped me hone my craft and Greg encouraged me to go into the deep dark places and write. Second, I began volunteering at the Children’s Grief Center as a bereavement group facilitator, an experience that continues to inform my narrative voice, not to mention the person that I am now.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary memoir, specifically grief memoir.
What other book might you compare to RECONSTRUCTING MY MOTHER within this genre?
The obvious—everyone’s go-to grief book—THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion. I’d LIKE to say my book is just like that, if only for the fact that I respect Didion’s prose style. I’d also like to say Cheryl Strayed’s book WILD is just like my book. In fact, I’d love to say that I was bold enough to hike the Pacific Crest trail alone, but I was never quite as “wild” as Strayed (and probably won’t be).
The closest I’ve found so far (though I continue to learn from all the books I’ve read) is RULES OF INHERITANCE by Claire Bidwell Smith. In fact I have a literary crush on her… she wrote some of the most beautiful passages that made me cry and jealous that I’d not written them myself. I think her book resonated with me because was she young when her mother died (she was in her first year of college), she responded by making some not-so-great choices in behavior, and now she works as a grief counselor…
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I hate this question. I can’t imagine my book as a movie… I can imagine it as a one-woman play though, starring me. (confirming that memoirists are narcissistic, I suppose)
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Set against the backdrop of turning 40, watching her only sister battle breast cancer, RECONSTRUCTING MY MOTHER chronicles Jennifer’s journey to get to know her mother who died when she was just 13; ultimately, however, it is a journey to get to know herself.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I feel like it’s taken my whole life! Seriously it’s hard to say. The first thing I actually called a draft, was me being audacious. I took everything I’d ever written about my mother, three-hole-punched it and submitted to a Master Class in Memoir in 2007, two years after that first class at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. That draft took two years, but as I said, it really wasn’t a draft. There was a lot of writing but there was no narrative arc, and 90% of what was in that pseudo draft has vanished.
My first “real” whole draft was completed for my MFA defense, April 2012, seven years after that first memoir class. I’m working on revising now.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Although both my parents are now dead, I would say they continue to inspire me to write this book. My mother because I feel an urge to memorialize her through my writing. And my father as well, though that is more complicated: my dad exemplified unresolved grief. I’m also inspired by the work of the Children’s Grief Center. One life-changing lesson I’ve learned by volunteering there is how important it is to learn to tell our grief story. Whether it’s being able to say, “I’m Jennifer, my mom died when I was 13” or writing an essay, book, or poem about the experience, by constructing our narratives we heal. And by sharing our narratives, we help others heal.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Through all this, my sister continues to battle breast cancer. She was first diagnosed in 2001 she was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer—but it returned in 2004 as Stage IV breast cancer. She seems to be one of the lucky ones enjoying long-term survival managing the cancer. Good natured sibling rivalry makes me want to leave her out of this book, but she is such an integral part of my life, and my biggest fan, she is a part of the story whether I want her to be or not.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I hope to have an agent-ready manuscript by the end of summer…
For the NEXT big thing, I’m tagging (to start… I think I’m supposed to tag five. Check back I’ll post links to the responses):
The dreaded post MFA question: What are you going to do NOW?
Somehow I seem to find myself rather busy. I’m working on revising, rewriting, and revamping my work-in-progress book, Reconstructing My Mother. I’ve been to Taos, to the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference, I’m heading to New York, and San Diego…
Other creative projects:
I’ve been working on DimeStories as I am now the Director of DimeStories International. I’m revamping the website, am creating an online virtual open mic, and perhaps a print anthology of DimeStories, and producing more modules for radio…
I also started another online project, The I Write Because Project. That has been gaining tremendous traction, over 1000 visitors the first week! And submissions from around the country and from people I don’t even know.
I’m also doing some freelance writing (and available for more work). You can check out my professional website at JenniferSimpsonWriter.com.
So what’s next? who knows. I’m trying to follow my heart and am hoping the money will follow.
I’d been thinking about getting a dog for awhile. I’d imagined taking a dog on a long walk every day (the exercise would be good for both us). Or I’d be sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe with a well-behaved dog at my feet. I could envision road trips, a dog at my side. I’d had some experience with dogs…
When I lived in San Diego my roommate Susann had a dog a cute little Chihuahua named Chico. When Susann was out of town, I took care of him. I’d take him to the office, we’d walk on the beach at sunset… I kind of fell in love. But he really wasn’t my dog.
Then there’s my friends’ Sam and Randi’s dog, Tree, an Eskimo Spitz. I’ve taken care of her a few times when Sam and Randi were out of town. We always had a good time. We’d walk up to campus, hang out at the Duck Pond, or run around the grassy athletic field. She wasn’t really my dog either.
Then, a couple of months ago my friend Christina posted on Facebook about a dog that needed a home, Akira, a Shiba inu. A couple of people were interested in taking Akira in, but wouldn’t be able to take him until summer….
I took my time getting to know Akira, visiting a few times, taking him on walks in the neighborhood. He was the size dog I’d imagined I’d have too–about knee-high, 29 pounds, not too big, not too small.
He was shy at first. In fact it took him about an hour to take a treat from me the first time we met. Then I came back, and back again. He’d get all wiggly and waggly and turn in circles when I came over. He liked me. It seemed like it would be a good match. I offered to foster, to give it a trial run, kind of like renting before you buy. Christina said if I decided I wanted to keep him, to let her know and I’d have “first dibs.”
A couple of weeks ago my friend said I needed to make a decision. And I’ve decided to not keep Akira.
I feel horribly guilty about it because Akira has lots of good qualities. He is very sweet, especially when he comes and puts his head on my lap. He is fine around the cats–and they ignore him. He has a good temperament… when it is just the two of us, inside the house. But when a friend comes over, he hides under the bed and rarely comes out to say hello. If that were the only issue, it wouldn’t be much of an issue, but it has been really difficult to take him for walks. He doesn’t do well on the leash. He pulls and he gets scared anytime we come across a fellow walker, jogger, skateboarder, scooter, cyclist, noisy car… and I live in a busy neighborhood so it’s hard to avoid any of the aforementioned. He’s gotten better as he’s become accustomed to the area, but we’ve been building up block by block and it’s slow going. I can’t leave him alone in the yard either– he is an escape artist. Re-doing the fence is not in the budget right now. And I can’t imagine Akira sitting quietly at my feet while I sip coffee.
And while my cats are okay around Akira, they don’t come around as much as they used to, preferring to stay in the office, or the kitchen (where Akira is not allowed), or under the dresser. I miss them.
I feel like Akira needs a different owner, one who has more experience with dogs and has the patience, or doesn’t have the same expectations I have about walks and cafes.
I’ll keep Akira until his new owner shows up later this month. Hopefully I won’t fall in love with him while I wait for his new owners to come get him.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
Why is it when youI have a project due, something BIG like, say a dissertation, youI 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.