And That’s a Wrap: The Graduate

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On Bay Path’s lovely campus in Longmeadow, MA.
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The top of my hat, decorated to pay homage to my three years as a student of creative nonfiction.
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I am grateful to have had such an inspiring MFA program director, Leanna James Blackwell.

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Kind of a thrill to be a part of a graduation processional again at age 46. Carpe Diem!

 

Completing my MFA; Entering the Void

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Photo credit: Heyli Howard (photo taken at E’s high school graduation).

Normally, by this point in the school week, I would have long since written the requisite blog post for my Immersion in Publishing class. This week, however, I’ve been dragging my heels. When I paused to assess the reason for this uncharacteristic procrastination, I realized it was because I was putting off an ending.

With this post, I am completing my last assignment for this class, which is the last class of my MFA program. The moment I post this on my blog (and in Canvas, the online platform utilized by Bay Path), I will essentially be done with my MFA (aside from a few final responses to classmates and one last class this coming Thursday). As much as I’ve looked forward to (even counted down the weeks) to the ending of my MFA program, now that it is upon me, I feel myself hitting the brakes. Why is that?

It’s been a good week to contemplate the nature of endings. My son, Ethan, just completed his last college class on Friday; he’ll be graduating with a BFA in painting and drawing next weekend. For me, that is an ending to celebrate. Back in 2007, when my ex-husband lost everything (thankfully we were already divorced five years at the time and so my finances were no longer tied to his—with the exception of losing child support payments for a time), I had no idea how I’d manage to pay for our two kids’ college educations (although still four and six years ahead). It had always been my goal (was once my ex’s goal too) to do this for Han and E.

In the end, everything worked out. We lived frugally and (thanks to a promotion at work) I saved lots of money in CDs when interest rates were still high. Remarrying helped free up my savings towards Han and E’s college. Plus, my ex was finally able to help out with E’s college. Now, I’ve (*we’ve) done it. I’ve put Han and E. through college. Ethan—bless his heart—knew this distinct goal of mine and he congratulated me (Yes, he congratulated me!) on the day he completed college. So, I’ve done what I set out to do, a commitment made when my ex and I divorced. I’ve completed the raising of those two kids (which is not to say that Han doesn’t still call me every weekend, seeking advice). The rest is up to them.

It’s interesting how easily I celebrate the end of my children’s college years, but my own grad school completion, not so much. I think this is because my own ending creates a void. It’s the void of “what’s next?” especially when you’re a creative and the path is not obvious (as it might be to someone graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering). I see Ethan entering the void as well; he spent yesterday updating his artist web site. Anticipating the void, Kate Whouley, the instructor of my two publishing classes, asked us to draft and submit a signed writer’s contract. My professors have done their part. The rest is up to me.

The void created in the absence of the MFA program is mine to fill. To fill the void, I will keep writing.

The truest thing I’ve learned over the past three years of this MFA work is that I am a writer. Submitting pieces and receiving rejections is a part of the game. Having an essay or poem rejected is an ending (of the hope you had). It creates a void. To fill that void, I’ve learned to do one of three things: revise the piece (again), put it aside to mature (and then revise), or submit it immediately to another publication. This game is always half terror, half hope. But the act of writing (into the void) is what I love and that is why I’ll keep writing.

In honor of this ending, I compiled a list of my top ten hardest endings (in no particular order):

  1. 1999: A soulful friendship lost
  2. 1979: My black tuxedo kitten—Uncle Beethoven—run over by a car
  3. 1986: End of gymnastics career with back injury sustained during a vault
  4. 2016: A soulful friendship lost
  5. 2009: Putting my daughter Hannah on a plane, heading alone to Japan, effectively ending her childhood
  6. 2005: A soulful friendship lost
  7. 1988: The summer before college, when I was too entrenched in a binge eating disorder to feel (or understand) my high school losses
  8. 2014: My mom selling “our share” in the family cabin that my grandfather built and my last visit as an “owner”
  9. 2002: The end of my parent’s marriage, because it came the same year as my own divorce and their ability to parent me (as an adult child) came to an end exactly when I was in need of extra support
  10. 1984: The year my brother Scott headed to California on his red Kawasaki motorcycle, my brother Rob moved to the Twin Cities, and my brother Chris returned to college, leaving me home alone to referee my parents’ chaotic marriage

Not all endings are necessarily negative. And even with the “bad” ones above, I can now see what eventually came in to fill the void (except when Uncle Beethoven died). To end on a positive note, here are my top five endings (in no particular order):

  1. 2002: End of my marriage
  2. 2009: Remarriage ends my years of being single
  3. 2017: Second child of my first marriage completes college and I achieve one of my top five lifetime goals by seeing my oldest two kids through college
  4. 2010: Han home from Japan (end of Rotary year)
  5. 1998: End of short career practicing law

And now, I enter the void; I enter a time of waiting for new structures and experiences to add shape to my writing life.

*My husband, my ex, my ex’s spouse, and me

#AWP17 Conference Report — Kim MacQueen on “Digital Pedagogy for Beginners”

Posting my friend Kim’s recap of #AWP17 panel on Digital Pedagogy, in part because it is so well done, and in part, because I want to remember the lessons of this blog post.

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

awp#AWP17 Panel:F124. Digital Pedagogy for Beginners

Description: From podcasts to Twitter essays to .gif novels, digital storytelling is on the rise. This panel is aimed at instructors interested in experimenting with this fascinating and challenging material, but unsure of how to begin. Panelists work to demystify the world of digital pedagogy by offering their experiences integrating new media into writing classes. Panelists also suggest examples, assignments and discussion topics appropriate for literature, creative writing and composition courses.

Panelists: Aubrey Hirsch, Faith Adiele, Brian Oliu, Adriana Ramirez, Erin Anderson

Conference Report

Five faculty members currently teaching digital storytelling in various forms at different institutions shared stories of both success and failure during this lighthearted, completely engaging Friday morning panel. If any one tagline can be said to encapsulate the discussion — which seemed designed to simultaneously pique instructors’ interest and calm their fears about the daunting amount of software they…

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#AWP17 Conference Report — Heidi Fettig Parton on “The Craft of Empathy”

So grateful for the opportunity to guest blog over at Assay Journal about an excellent panel discussion that I attended at #AWP17 on The Craft of Empathy.

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I’ve been spending lots of time over at the web page of Ana Maria Spagna, panel moderator, reading her essays; she’s is my new writer hero!

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

awp#AWP17 Panel Report: F151 The Craft of Empathy

Description: Writing with empathy in mind, especially in nonfiction, can create texture in our work and be transformative for both writer and reader. On this panel we explore various angles of perspective: scenes where narrators show empathy toward other characters—especially ones who are unlikeable—and vice versa, reflections that suggest empathy of a memoirist for a younger self, as well as techniques for showing empathy, as a writer, for the reader, and from both reader and writer for the nonhuman world.

Panelists: (moderator), , ,

Conference Report

“Empathy is the deeper understanding that we’re all working towards as readers and writers,” Ana Maria Spagna told the audience of the #AWP17 Friday morning panel she moderated. Spagna referenced a 2013 study, which revealed that those who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don’t…

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More Writer Angst: Writing the Foxtail Farm Winter CSA Profile

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Prior to my interview with Paul and Chris Burkhouse, owners of Foxtail Farm Winter CSA, I volunteered on their farm for a day, packing boxes. To pack these boxes, we formed a conveyer line of people, adding vegetables in a precise order. I was at the head of the line; my job was to insert one squash and one pumpkin–the heaviest offerings of the day. It was like lifting weights, only with 35o repetitions instead of three. I found myself wondering if it was an initiation of sorts–give the new girl the heaviest load.

Finally, when I could no longer reach the squash on the highest shelves, due to my five foot two stature, I swapped a Foxtail intern for potato duty, a decidedly more appealing job. The potatoes still wore dirt of the fields just outside the barn door. They smelled of earth, they whispered of rootedness. At the end of the day, my back was aching and beneath my fingernails, soil was wedged so tightly, it would take three or fourth baths to dislodge it. I was actually more than okay with this; I could smell the St. Croix River Valley on my fingers for a week. It reminded me of how I’d felt renewed by my day at the farm. I realized, I’d been living too long disconnected from the soil.

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Now I know: water is life and soil is alive. Connection both will keep a soul grounded.

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A week and one day later, I sat down with Paul and Chris for our interview, in preparation for the profile I’d be writing on them as a part of my St. Croix Master Watershed Steward program. The three of us engaged in a lively discussion. I relished spending time with the philosophical and intelligent Paul and Chris (and their two dogs). I loved walking the fields of kale, covered in snow and eating spinach picked fresh from the ground of a hoop house. At the end of the interview, all seemed as idyllic as the farm upon which we stood. But then, Paul asked to review the piece before it published. I reluctantly agreed.

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Ten days later, when I had the piece written and polished, I sent it off to Paul and Chris–more than a little nervous about having them review it. A day went by, then two, then three and then a week. At the eight day point, I left both a voicemail and email, asking them to confirm receipt of the piece. I didn’t hear from them that day. By that evening, I was beside myself with fear, depression, and self-loathing. This was worse then any emotion I’d experienced after having one of my essays or poems rejected by a publication. I’d written about two people’s lives and, I assumed, they hated it. They disliked it so much that they weren’t even going to respond to me. I emailed my fantastically patient editor, Greg Seitz, over at St. Croix 360. I told him I was going to have to regroup, write a different story. I also told him I was going to learn to write fiction so that I no longer had to deal with real people.

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I woke up that night at 1 am. I was a hot mess of thoughts, thoughts that moved as swiftly as thunderheads on the loose. I am terrible writer, not even my profile subjects like my writing. In fact, they hated it. I can’t write about real people. Even my daughter cried when she read the first few paragraphs of the piece I’d written about her for Angels Flight Literary West. And Greg. He must think I am completely unhinged. I shouldn’t have disclosed all my angst to him. I am a fraud, a failure. I need to find a job that has nothing to do with writing. They hate me. Everyone hates me. Why did I think I could do this watershed thing, anyway? And on and on it went.

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At 6 am, when I opened up my email, I had a note from Chris Burkhouse apologizing to me. She said they’d never received the preview draft a week earlier and they’d both been really sick with horrible colds, but could I please send it to them now and they’d review it as quickly as possible. What? Maybe they don’t hate me after all. Something akin to relief washed through me. Yet, this meant they still hadn’t reviewed it. They might still come to hate me.

I emailed Greg again to tell him of the latest development. I told him I’d felt like a girl thinking she’d been jilted by her prom date, only to discover he’d just had a flat tire. I hit send. Fantastic Heidi; again too much information to the editor. Now he knows you are coming unhinged.

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A day later, I received the draft back from Chris with some perfectly reasonable edits that helped clarify farming terms and practices that I wasn’t well voiced in. It took me all of five minutes to make the changes. I sent it off to Greg and it published even sooner than I’d expected. And I actually like the piece. I really like it. You can read the full piece here; I also took all of the photos for this piece and will publish some of the extras here–so you can see just how beautiful the Wisconsin countryside can be in the fading December light.

Perhaps I won’t give up nonfiction writing after all; at least not yet. And, perhaps, I might take up photography. Sometimes you just have to wait. Not every answer or every solution comes when you think it should. Oh, to be still and know that all will be well, in time.