One door, about to close

15 Mar

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In 2011, I began pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree at University of Central Florida. Having turned 40 the previous year, I was inspired by the passing of time to step up, take the GRE, and get my act together. I had a great full-time job, a stable home and supportive partner, so it was time to mix it up and with my green monogrammed L.L. Bean backpack over one shoulder, off to school I went.

I remember the first day of that first semester. I left work, giving myself plenty of time to get to campus, eat dinner, and find my classroom. I drove and drove and realized that the commute to school from work was 45 minutes. I would make that trip some semesters 2 or 3 times per week. I thought to myself, “What have I done?”

After submitting my first assignments, and noting how long it had been since I had to list proper citations on an academic paper, I knew I made a few mistakes. I mentally beat myself up over it, and even more so at the end of that first semester when I received an A- for my grade. (That was the only A- I received in my program – I vowed not to let that happen again.)

I was approached by a faculty member, David James (Jamie) Poissant, that first semester, asking if I would be interested in helping to start a graduate reading series, to create a safe public space for MFA students to get practice reading their creative works aloud in front of a group. I joined forces with Leslie Salas and Kirsten Holt, and a month or so later, we launched, PARCELS: MFAs in Progress, and I’m so pleased to see the series continue to run today. (Dr. Poissant has just published his latest book, The Heaven of Animals: Stories.)

There were a few semesters I thought I was in over my head. Again, I asked myself, “What have I done? What have I gotten myself into?” Despite self-doubt creeping in now and then, I kept clear about my objective and I did whatever it took to get everything done. Some weeks I would work 45 or 50 hours, read two novels, and write a paper or two. Just when I thought there wasn’t any more I could do, I did more. I pushed my personal limits of achievement, and learned to use time in an entirely different way.

This past week, on Wednesday, March 12, I defended my 152-page thesis, Stories I Told Myself: A Memoir. It’s a collection of personal essays about what it was like growing up gay in a small farming city on California’s central coast in the 1980s. I sat before the 3 members of my committee and 5 other students who were present to show their support (Thank you for being there Sean, Madison, Gabrielle, Jeffrey and Genevieve). I answered a series of questions about my creative work, a project I have spent the last three years developing. It was exhilarating and I was not nervous. This was an opportunity to talk about my writing, in an almost NPR-style discussion.

After 45 minutes or so, the committee excused everyone, including me. We milled about in the hallway, speculating as to whether or not they would approve my thesis. A few minutes passed, the classroom door opened, and my thesis chair, Darlin’ Neal, PhD, opened the door and said, “Congratulations!” I walked in the room and Dr. Lisa Roney and Ms. Laurie Rachkus Uttich also wished me well. My thesis had been approved. All that remained was for me to submit the final version to the University, and submit a form with a variety of signatures on it. It was done. A few weeks remain in the class I’m taking this semester, and I will graduate on May 1.

While I was and am thrilled the thesis was well received and approved by my committee and that milestone is complete, there is a growing gap in my heart as the final weeks of school pass. My pursuit of this MFA was not solely for the final acknowledgement and diploma of completion. The passionate conversations about truth in nonfiction, about the use of commas and semi-colons, about whether nonfiction should be with or without a hyphen, were exhilarating to me. Being around younger people kept me inspired and jolted my joie de vivre! The books, people and stories I was introduced to over the past three years ran the gamut and I am a better reader, writer and editor for it. And two AWP conference trips to Chicago and Boston were simply icing on the literary cake. It was each step along the way that fed my soul and inspired me in so many ways. And as I see the end in sight, I have already found myself making lists of things to do post-MFA.

Whatever may appear on that list, I know nothing will compare to the myriad friendships I have forged, the learning I have gleaned, and the growth I have enjoyed in these past three years. And soon, very soon, I will sit briefly to reflect, only to ask myself, “What’s next?”

On Inspiration

29 Sep

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I sat at my desk at the office the other day, working on a project, and for background, on my iPad, I played, “In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye,” an amazing documentary that highlights fashion editors from the famous magazine. It’s a wonderful program not only because of the personal histories it shares, but it gives the viewer a glimpse into the story behind some incredibly iconic images that have peppered the pages of this fashion bible. This, along with other fashion films, is something that inspires me. The creativity of others inspires creativity in me.

I draw ideas and seek the opportunity to look at a particular project from a different point of view. When this came to mind, it made me wonder if others get up in the morning and, in some way – whether reading a book, watching video, or other means – connect with sources of inspiration to help them throughout their day. I’m not referring to inspiration on a spiritual sense per se, though that, I’m sure, could be something that inspires someone throughout the day, or serves as a compass for our behavior. 

I think of this question more in terms of public figures, other individuals who have carved a unique space for themselves in recent or distant history, whether great or small. They have used their skills and talents to contribute to a greater social and cultural landscape and, in some way, have brought beauty or intellectual thought or understanding to the public stage. For me, it’s people like Anna WintourGrace Coddington, and Diana Vreeland that give me insight and inspiration for my work in leading a team that develops the employee magazine for the company I work at (in my day job). It’s looking at famous designers, photographers like Tom Bianchi, and writers like Paul Monette.

I also look to films such as “L’Amour Fou,” “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” and “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” as not only anchors of the creative past, but individuals who embody the pursuit and creation of beauty. These works also include stunning photography that encourages me to look at things differently through my own camera’s lens literally, my own mind’s eye figuratively.

I am also inspired by my partner, Richard, who has introduced me to so many things through concerts, performances, theater, travel and art in our 12 years together. He is someone who has challenged my own conventional thinking, and who diligently works to create experiences for us to share, experiences that always turn into special memories that live on long after the moments have passed.

I can be inspired by fragrance, by taking great care to select the right fragrance to wear on any given morning. I may sample two or three until I find just the right one with the subtle nuance that sparks my senses. I can be inspired by a performance, or a song, or a work of art. 

It is possible to create beauty with language, with words on the page, too. I am not only inspired by the visual arts – obviously. If that were the case, I would not be nearing the completion of my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree. The pursuit of beauty is discovering something that ignites such extreme passion and obsession in us that we are infinitely fascinated by the topic, that we can dissect it, explore it and pursue it on many levels, both visceral and theoretical.

Unfortunately, I see some who walk through their day uninspired. They look down and avoid contact with others. They want to recreate what has always been to prevent themselves from facing the exhilaration and challenge of changing, of evolving, of becoming, of reinventing oneself, one’s work. They persist in making each day mundane and, in many ways, mediocre. This is an unfortunate state to find oneself, and I know I cannot live like that.

I find that by continually fueling my own actions, my own work, my own creativity with elements and expressions of culture, of tradition, of history, of art, of music, of fashion, of literature and folklore, of information and intellect, I can make each day something special, something unique, an experiment in learning, in loving, and in living my best life. And in doing so, I hope I can, in some small way, encourage others to pursue their passions, to live with inspiration all around them.

Discovering the joy of writing fiction

25 Aug

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I’ve kicked off my third and final year in my MFA program and I’ve taken an interesting detour in my course work – making the leap from writing creative nonfiction and memoir to writing short fiction. On the heels of finishing the first draft of my first short story of the semester, I have some interesting observations on discovering the joy of writing fiction.

The first and obvious one is: When writing fiction, I can make stuff up! We spend so much time in our nonfiction workshops talking about truth and memory, about doing all we can to accurately capture the past as we recall it, to consider how we characterize people we have known to ensure the right perception is crafted on the page. In fiction, there is freedom from the quest for truth in order to fashion only what we can imagine.

For fiction workshop, we have to write three linked short stories this semester and I have found my inspiration from photographer Tom Bianchi’s latest publication of polaroid images he took in Fire Island Pines between 1975-1983. I’ve mapped out the general tone of each of the three stories and, as mentioned, I’ve drafted the first. I’d like to think I have the makings of a chapbook on my hands.

In drafting the first story, “Polaroids, No. 1: Phil, 1978,” I spent eight pages in 1978 Fire Island with people facing real problems, celebrating the momentary joy of being in a gay utopia, and trying to find their way in a different time and place. In memoir, I begin with a set of established emotions and perceptions of my main character (as that main character is me). In fiction, I get to know my characters as the story progresses, I become endeared to them or I begin to hate them in unexpected ways. They begin to feel like friends.

I also found the mind does different things when writing fiction than when writing nonfiction. In memoir, the mind is focused on recalling the sensory details of moments long ago, of pulling out key themes, images, personality flaws and nuances of loved ones and enemies. Writing fiction feels to me like a much more mentally cinematic experience. In writing a scene at an afternoon tea dance in The Pines, I have to decide what I see in that space, and then determine which of those images I want to paint, with words, for the reader (and in essence, decide where to direct the reader’s attention). I suppose those same decisions have to be made in any writing, but with fiction, because I’m making things up, the creative process feels different.

Writing memoir also forces me to dig up the past, to reopen wounds that, much to my dismay, I realize have not fully healed, particularly when I begin exploring the moments that caused those wounds in the first place. Memoir is about real life, its celebrations and tragedies, it’s discoveries and its shortcomings. Fiction doesn’t force me to dig up my own stuff, but instead, I have the opportunity to use the lives of fabricated people to illustrate common themes of the human experience. 

While I have only just completed my first short story, I have begun to experience and enjoy the differences between the two forms. And I look forward to the remaining two stories that will take me back to The Pines, and give me a few more opportunities to spend time with my characters.

 

The Castro Revisited

30 Jun

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I started this month off in San Francisco. My partner and I spent four days there before getting on a ship going to Alaska and back. On one day while in the city, we took a historical walking tour of the Castro, the famous neighborhood, an icon steeped in the milestones of time.

My first trip to the Castro was in 1990, shortly after I came out to myself and to my parents. I was 20 years old. The neighborhood had a grit to it. All the shops were independently owned. It had everything from small cafés and bars to novelty and sex toy shops. I walked by Headquarters and saw men in military uniforms out front; farther down Castro street, Worn Out West was selling denim and shirts that would suit any cowboy or lumberjack.

It was one of the first times I saw men holding hands in public, or kissing on the street corner. It was a novelty. This place was one in which, for really the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged, like I was part of something. As I looked around and watched the flurry of people around me, I saw myself in them. I thought to myself, “So this is what it’s supposed to feel like.” It was that sense of wonder, the spirit of awe, that distraction at the slightest view of a handsome man who fit my instinctual specifications.

This was 1990, just 9 years after the emergence of HIV and AIDS. So, as my boyfriend at the time and I strolled the streets, young and in love, I also saw the devastation. An older man walked with a cane, lesions on his neck and arms, and a friend helped him cross the street.

The Castro is very different now and yet parts of it are the same. It is more commercialized, and while some of the small businesses are still around, as well as some of the old haunts like Midnight Sun and Moby Dick’s remain, there was also a change in the feeling of walking down the street.

Yes, as we passed in front of Worn Out West, our tour guide reviewed the infamous Hanky Code, not so much for our benefit, but for Mike & Phyllis, very supportive parents of their gay son, Ben, back home in Sydney, Australia.

Yes, as we stood on a street corner, drag queens prepared to run around the block to raise money for “The Country Club,” a place where those looking for an alcohol-free environment may enjoy time with others.

There were also families. With strollers. Strollers with babies in them!

Now, let me be clear – I am not anti-family or anti-baby (though the closest thing I think I will ever get to being a father is to that of a pug I will name Halston). But my stored recollection of this neighborhood was that of a place where I felt the sexual tension as I walked down the streets pulsating with bears, uniformed men, drag queens, and everyone else who was there to be free, to celebrate their identities, to live without shame.

So now, as we walked along Castro Street, and our tour guide pointed out a collection of Billy dolls posed in the window of a nearby shop (the dolls are well endowed and some are displayed in their nude form), I myself had a moment of shock as a young mother pushed a stroller with one child, and another child walked at her side. Had I become a prude?

Surely, growing up in a neighborhood as diverse as this would help a young person  to become open minded and inclusive, so I am not complaining. The world needs more people like that. The Castro of my youth, had evolved; I, too, had shifted in thought. I had always thought of myself as very open minded but even this scene pushed the boundaries of my thinking.

We finished the tour in front of what was Harvey Milk’s camera shop and apartment. It is now owned by the Human Rights Campaign and is a shop that sells some really cool merchandise that supports the organization and promotes equality. On the sidewalk out front, a portion of Harvey’s ashes are in the sidewalk, covered by a commemorative plaque with his image on it. I stood there for a moment and really soaked in where we were. I looked around and considered all of the fights, the rallies, the protests and the parties, the celebrations, the parades that had occurred there – how the community of which I am proudly a member has, at various times, converged upon this special place to honor its place in history.

And today, at month’s end, history has been made once again. The Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which will allow same-sex couples married in states with marriage equality laws to enjoy Federal recognition of their relationship (and the myriad benefits and resources that come with that). Additionally, the court also struck down Prop 8 in California, and marriages for gays and lesbians resumed there late last week. My partner and I have even begun to hear the lure of wedding bells – and after 12 years together, why shouldn’t we? (More on that another day).

Back when I was 20, when I walked down Castro Street, feeling a bit rebellious, on the fringe, but excited about who I was becoming, I never imagined I would someday be able to legally marry my partner and have our bond be recognized by the federal government. As parades and festivals fill this weekend’s social calendars in many cities around the U.S.A., I gratefully, wholeheartedly enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon at home with the man I love.

And that, too, at one point in my life, I never would have imagined.

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The Summer of The Thesis

28 Apr

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I just finished my second of three years in my MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Central Florida. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed, and with just one year to go, my priorities will definitely shift based on the requirement to draft and defend a creative thesis. While it’s easy to fool myself into thinking I have a lot of free time for the next few months before my online Spanish course begins at the end of June., the reality is that is just not the case.

With a requirement of approximately 160 pages, and with about 80 pages of draft content already worked up, I need to focus my efforts on outlining the flow of the actual thesis, and then determine how those different pieces will fall in that outline. I have more drafting to do, and would like to have a good working rough draft when the fall semester begins so when I start my thesis hours, I can really focus on revisions.

I also feel like the awareness I gained about my writing in Graduate Workshop this past semester, has been some of the greatest I have received during the course of my program. In both pieces I wrote this past semester – one about my senior prom, the other about my senior trip to Hawaii – I received some pretty consistent feedback from my fellow students:

  1. I do well at developing scenes, using sensory details, and immersing readers in time and place. (Favorable)
  2. My prose is crisp and clean, with a fairly direct tone. (Still, favorable)
  3. There isn’t enough of me, of my interior thoughts and authentic, unhinged reflection on what is happening in the scenes from my past about which I write. (Now, we’re getting somewhere!)

There isn’t enough of me in the work. That was a very powerful realization to have, and I am so grateful to my fellow students and our professor for providing that insight. It is critical in a memoir to have some gauge about how the narrator is feeling in a particular circumstance. What I saw happen was the readers were having a stronger, more visceral reaction than the narrator (me), so things felt out of balance.

As I worked on revising two creative pieces for my final portfolio in Workshop, I really focused heavily on adding more of me into the work (something the reader undoubtedly expects in a mem. What I also realize is that this may be a multi-step process. In future work, I should draft as I typically do, in which I will, most likely, focus on description, dialogue, setting, and outlining the crux of the narrative thread. Then, upon second review, focus on including more personality, emotion, and reflection into the work. If I’m too focused on including recognition of that, then it could distract from actually composing the narrative.

The good news is that, as I re-read critical scenes in both personal essays from the semester, after I had revised them, I felt like I really knew where to focus my actions, to what should attention be paid. This focus is something that will give me another element to add to my list of considerations during revision – just as I check for the other things that either get on my nerves when someone else does them, or specific things I want to be sure to include, this idea of including interiority and reflection at critical moments in the narrative will be something that I will not only pay attention, but also know how to identify when it is missing and what a difference it makes when it is included.

So these next few months, while deceptively “free” of academic responsibilities such as classes (until late June), I will focus more diligently than I ever have on drafting my creative thesis – combing through what I have thus far, identifying an organizing principle or framework for the book, and then really getting a good body of work to revise. This is the Summer of The Thesis – and after just a day or two of rest, I will be ready to take on that next exciting literary challenge.

When words fail me

3 Feb

I say this, not because I want a medal, but to acknowledge the ramifications of my personal choices. I work a full-time job, an avid knitter and teacher, and I’m getting my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I also share my home with my partner of over 11 years. With a schedule so full, as it often is, I relish time to have to sit and imagine, to consider my own personal narrative and which parts of it I want to capture for upcoming writing workshop assignments.

Today, I woke up at 6:30, eager to brew that first cup of coffee and sit down at the computer. This I did do, and write I did. But about two hours into the experience, I felt like the story was expanding, or the scenes I had captured could become bigger pieces to include in my thesis. I got caught up in the structure I adopted early on, but the content was not playing well with it to the extent I wanted it to. It just wasn’t working for me.

I think some would argue that even if you get crap down, or you aren’t particularly pleased, at least you spent your time writing, and perhaps what you captured will lead you to another path on which you will find literary bliss. That may be true, but I can tell you there is no bliss today. And not because I couldn’t find the perfect word at the right time. I know better. They often don’t come like that. My frustration is more that my time is so limited and when I have time earmarked for homework or for writing, I want to make the most of it. I did do what I set out to do this morning, and even tried to do some more brainstorming and mind mapping this afternoon, to no avail.

I have been unquestionably sequestered in my home this weekend, leaving it only to run a few brief errands yesterday. Perhaps the cabbage just needs a bit of fresh air? Perhaps more research is the order of the day?

Whatever today’s solution, I will begin again tomorrow, picking up where I left off. For now, I will read and listen and observe, on constant watch for inspiration, for words.

 

Are modern manners extinct?

25 Dec

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In the past week I, like many, have spent time about town shopping for last-minute holiday gifts. I also spent a day at a local theme park during one the busiest times of the year. In both experiences, I had a great deal of exposure to a wide sampling from the general populace. Being a writer, I watch and listen to what happens around me, and between the shops and the theme park, I was able to come to this conclusion:

Although the world did not end on December 21, the death of modern manners and common courtesy has come to pass.

I’m not even referencing the more complex aspects of etiquette such as where to place the salad fork or how to write a thank you note. I am speaking of those everyday actions that should be rule, not the exception. Things like saying, “Please,” and “Thank you.” Holding a door for someone. Smiling and being cordial. This was not the world I have seen in the past week.

No, the world I saw featured homicidal stroller-pushing parents, angry people snapping at grumpy people, pushing, shoving, and cutting in line for starters. I was not in a place of refined grace and elegance (which, I believe, is still possible in today’s contemporary society), a place of cordiality and appropriateness. No, I saw a world of visible butt cracks and crass slogans on ratty T-shirts. I saw a world where people were out for themselves, or simply so consumed by their smartphone they appeared to forget they were not the only person around (or on the road).

I am not making a plea for a return to Victorian ways; however, I am posing a few serious questions: Why have we become a rude, angry, and inappropriate society? Isn’t there even just a smidgen of class to be found deep within which can be demonstrated toward others? Isn’t there just one day you could say, “Thank you” or “Excuse me” to someone, or perhaps pull your pants up so I don’t have to see the colorful boxers you are sporting, or even put that cell phone down while you’re behind the wheel of a 2,000-pound automobile going 70 miles per hour down a crowded highway? Am I reaching for the stars?

This, I am sure, will not be my only call for a little class and grace. Perhaps this will become one of my personal platforms in 2013. What I know for sure is joy can be found when one is on one’s best behavior, when things are kept in order, and calm, rational people are kind to each other.

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