I spent three years pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing from University of Central Florida, reading and writing with fervor and spirit. Following graduation this past May, I took on a freelance gig as editor of a friend’s full-length nonfiction manuscript. A month-and-a-half later, with 413 pages under my belt, I brought that project to a close.
It was fortuitous that I should get a Facebook message from Dianne Richardson, a message that brought with it a challenge of sorts. Dianne and I were MFA students together, and she has a blog, A Novel Dianne, that I always enjoy reading. She wrote to request I join the “Writing Process Blog Tour,” and write about my own work, my current projects, and my personal process. Though Dianne and I only shared a few courses at UCF, I always appreciate her spirit and sharp wit. We also both have lived in Northern California at various points in our lives, so we’ve traded a few of those stories as well.
This was an interesting and helpful exercise and I hope you enjoy reading my responses to her questions.
What are you working on?
“If you don’t want to get bored with what you are doing, you have to change.”
– Carine Roitfeld
Following a post-graduation excursion to Charleston, I returned home completely inspired by Southern cooking. I have not traveled much in the South, and this trip opened my eyes (and palate) to the possibilities. I was so fascinated, I started a Southern cooking blog, Seeking Southern. It is an outlet for me to write about food and flavors, and show my experimentation in food photography. It has become a project to which I come and go, based on when I prepared a delicious Southern dish at home or enjoy this type of cuisine when I’m out on the town or traveling.
I am also revisiting the memoir I wrote for my MFA thesis, Stories I Told Myself. For that project, I wrote in a more traditional fashion, pulling together a series of essays about growing up gay in a smaller agricultural town in Northern California in the 1980s. One thing I researched and was drawn to during my MFA program was the use of collage elements in creative nonfiction. I am stepping back from my manuscript to think differently about how I can craft that narrative by incorporating collage elements that manipulate form and structure, and cumulatively, bring my experiences to life in a relevant and meaningful way for the reader.
I have a fascination with fashion, and the publications and editors that construct fantasies upon it. Lately, I have been perusing the Vogue memos by Diana Vreeland, and re-watching some of my favorite documentaries such as, “The Eye Has to Travel,” “The September Issue,” and “Mademoiselle C.” People such as Vreeland, along with Anna Wintour and Carine Roitfeld, and the pages they create, are very inspiring to me. While words are wonderful on their own, there is a certain magic that emerges in the conversation between words and images.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
“Create your own style.
Let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others.”
– Anna Wintour
In one way, my work differs from others in my genre because of its subject matter. I don’t find a lot of memoir looks at the coming of age of young gay men in the 1980s. Before the Internet. Before Ellen Degeneres. Prior to the groundswell of support for marriage equality. I see more material about today’s gay youth, but I don’t see many people my age (mid-40s) reflecting back on a time that was post-Stonewall, post-AIDS, pre-Internet, pre-Clinton. The experiences upon which I reflect are one way I differentiate myself within my genre.
While attending UCF, I experimented with form in my writing but, in the end, stuck to traditional structures when finalizing my thesis for defense. I don’t regret doing that, but in some ways, I stuck to what was more familiar. I am embarking upon greater levels of experimentation unhindered by academic requirements and expectations now. Sometimes, the desire to be literary overshadowed the desire to experiment, and while I have no plan to surrender the core elements of writing well, I have some interesting ideas about how I can tell that story in different and unexpected ways. That possibility, the exploration sparks new fascination with the life experiences I want to re-interpret for the page. I recognize there is a fine line between writing well and being too gimmicky, but that line remains a mystery unless I approach it, and step beyond it now and then.
Why do you write what you do?
“There’s only one very good life
and that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself.”
– Diana Vreeland
While I am not particularly nostalgic, there is a degree of catharsis that comes from revisiting pivotal moments of my past and interpreting them through an older, more informed, lens. I did write some short fiction during my MFA program, but I am drawn more to real life, those experiences great and small that illustrate my values, my interests, and my passions. I often reflect and look for ways to continuously improve. Looking back for me serves to facilitate forgiveness, understanding, and inspiration for a better future. It’s a chance to revisit these moments and learn from my own past, putting them in context with a broader life lived.
I also have this notion that by writing about my experiences, those real-life moments where decisions were made and destiny was altered forever, that someone may read my work and feel less alone; that they may enjoy a moment when a sense of solidarity overpowers the solitary feeling that one is alone in their individual circumstances.
How does your writing process work?
“I am no longer concerned with sensation or innovation,
but with the perfection of my style.”
– Yves Saint Laurent
I love to brainstorm and often create mind maps that help me put ideas on the page. I like to outline, create a brief sketch of the piece I’m developing – short or long – to provide a road map of sorts. I may veer from it, but I like starting a project with a view of the bigger picture, of the broader narrative. I have a difficult time when I don’t have an idea of the direction a narrative is heading. An outline gives me enough of a broader view of the idea so that I can begin taking steps, paragraph by paragraph, to arrive at my desired destination.
The MFA program taught me to get as much as I can on the page when the ideas come to me. I do that quickly, then spend a substantial amount of time in revision. I think it is during revisions when the real writing takes place. Much like a sculptor shifts clay or marble, the writer extracts, augments and reallocates fragments, paragraphs, and even whole chapters. I enjoy revising my work – it is problem solving, experimentation, movement, structure, and creative risk. It can be incredibly frustrating and quite rewarding.
I’ve realized that knowing when to stop revising and submit a piece of work is purely an instinctual, animal response in the writer. There are times when I know there could be changes made but that something is good and worthy and interesting. I rely a great deal on instinct when I’m working on a project.