My Next Big Thing

My first crocheted hat

It’s been awhile since I posted on this blog. I’ve been busy maintaining the DimeStories website, the I WRITE BECAUSE project, teaching a class on Writing Grief, contributing to A Writer’s March, and revising my memoir.  Oh and working for money too as a freelance writer.

I was first tagged for this Next Big Thing thing back in November by the talented  Jean Ryan (author of Survival Skills, forthcoming from Ashland Creek Press April 2013).  It’s been on my To Do list since then…  now my friend Elizabeth Tannen (author of the in-progress Close: A Family Memoir) has tagged me and you know what they say:  2nd time’s a charm!  (or something like that).

And so, I bring you MY Next Big Thing:

What is the working title of the book?


Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea that I even had a book in me came when I attended the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference in 2005. I’d signed up for a beginning memoir class with Greg Martin (author of Mountain City and most recently Stories for Boys). In the welcome letter, Greg asked us to send 15 pages of a “manuscript.” That was when the seed was planted (after the initial panic, of course).

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?

I hesitate… there are so many grief memoirs out there which makes it sound like the market is saturated. But really, it’s not. Grief is the one thing we all have in common, and something we will all go through at one point or another and there are so many lenses through which we can write about grief and connect with others who have lost. (I compiled an ever-growing list of literature about grief for a class I taught on Writing Grief—check it out and drop me a note if you want to add something)

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.

(like Elizabeth Tannen, I too am a fan of the semi-colon)

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):

Cynthia Patton

Barbara Zaragoza

Karen Hogan






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.





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.



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.



 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.


Rejections: Badges of Honor

Every time I receive a rejection from a literary journal I tell myself  “It’s a badge of honor. ”  Sometimes I even do a happy dance and shout out a little whoot whoot, you know, as if it were something to celebrate.  And in a way it really is.  When my work is rejected, that means I have submitted my work; I’ve tried to get it out there in the world.  For someone who in the past spent a lot of time not just not doing, but not even trying, it’s important for me to give myself credit for trying.

I tell myself that rejection is not personal, it may just be the editor or slush pile reader has a different aesthetic than I do.

When I worked at Blue Mesa Review (as managing editor one semester, and often as a volunteer reader of slush, currently as web editor which reminds me I have some work to do on the site) we rejected a lot of good work.  Sometimes a piece just didn’t get enough “yes” votes to make it to the discussion round.  Sometimes a good piece would make it to discussion and it wouldn’t have enough support to make it into print.  Sometimes a piece was too long, or too short, or not deep enough or too experimental, and even if we loved the prose style and the character and setting maybe the character didn’t change enough.  Sometimes the piece just didn’t fit in with what we’d already selected.  It’s hard to say, it’s like some secret algorithm that no one can decipher.

I tell myself a lot of things that are cliche:

  • That I should pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again
  • If at first I don’t succeed I must try try again
  • Rejection is the opportunity to start over
  • Success come to those who persist
  • It’s like the lottery, I gotta play to win


I remind myself that many other authors have been rejected many times, relishing tales of now famous writers and the rejections they received– writers like Stephen King,  William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ursula LeGuin, Gertrude Stein, to name a few.  I remember a reading by Elizabeth Gilbert; she said it was not her job to pre-reject herself, she figured that  someone at the New Yorker was paid to do the rejecting.  It’s not that I celebrate the failure of others, it’s that it encourages to me to know that rejection didn’t  mean failure, it didn’t mean their writing wasn’t/isn’t good.  And maybe the same is true for me.

I know all this when I send out my work. I understand that it’s part of the deal, it’s what I signed up for when I decided to call myself writer.  And still, sometimes it stings to get a rejection.

But when all is said and done, what I cling to is the knowledge that:

I write for myself first, because even if sometimes I cry or grumble or get angry when I write, I enjoy it, I need it.

What I have to say is important.