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

The Work of Adulting . . .

never ends. I’m so pleased and proud to have an essay publish on Grown and Flown this week. The essay explores a few difficult junctures of letting go as my oldest–my daughter–has spread her wings in life. Please check it out!

H teaching her little brother Japanese quite a few years ago now.

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.

Indie Bookstores, Part II: Stingy with Sexy at Milkweed Books

In Part One of my blog post on indie bookstores, I mentioned having recently visited Milkweed Books. Milkweed Books is housed on the first floor of Open Book, the same literary arts space where Milkweed Editions and The Loft Literary Center are located, on the floors above. On October 26, 2016, I entered Open Book with my twenty-one year old son, Ethan, to attend Benjamin Percy’s publication release reading his craft book, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, published by Graywolf Press.

Before Percy’s reading, Ethan and I decided to check out Milkweed Books.  While we were browsing, Ben Percy entered the store and handed the store’s manager two signed copies of his new book. I assume he provided only two because upstairs, outside the auditorium where book readings are held, another local indie bookseller, Magers and Quinn, was selling copies that Percy would sign after the reading. I recognized that Ethan, a busy senior in college, wouldn’t have the time to stick around after the reading to talk to Percy. As soon as Percy left the bookstore, I located the two-signed copies, plucked them from the shelf, and tucked them under my arm with the Ann Patchett book I’d already decided to buy. Why two? I was purchasing one for a former professor of mine, who’d recently provided volunteer hours on my watershed stewardship capstone project, skillfully editing my first article for St. Croix 360; the second signed copy would be his thank you.

By that time, Ethan was deeply engrossed in an art book and so I went to the front of the store to page through Mary Oliver’s new book, Upstream. While reading, I heard a man talking to the manager with enthusiasm and confidence, providing tidy critiques of all the books he’d recently read; he even instructed the manager to add a few obscure titles to his line up (that he volunteered to purchase if the manager couldn’t move them). My back was faced toward the window, away from the man; I couldn’t see him. I did, however, find myself wondering what this man did for a living—that he should have the time to read so many books. Then I heard him saying he wanted to purchase a copy of Thrill Me. I felt shamefully like a hoarder. I let the manager puzzle over the shelf where he’d placed the books just ten minutes earlier until I heard him say, “I know they’re here somewhere.”

“No. They’re not,” I said as I turned to come clean. “I’m sorry, but I’m purchasing both copies.” The customer—the one who seemed to know so much about books—told me to never apologize for buying books; he told me that he would pick up a copy upstairs. I told myself I was being selfish for not handing over my extra copy—but it was, after all, for my beloved professor who undoubtedly read even more books than the man with the thick wavy hair—just starting to gray—and sexy glasses (nicely dressed too—metro, decidedly metro—I noticed). He nodded at me graciously and left the bookstore.

After purchasing my books, Ethan and I proceeded out to the bistro to grab sandwiches before the reading. I contemplated the beverage container—kind of in line, kind of not. Then, over and over, I slid a bottle of ginger brew closer, then further, from my squinting eyes, struggling to read the fine print. I wondered aloud whether the beverage was alcoholic. While talking this out with Ethan (who couldn’t have cared less about the alcohol content), a plump woman behind me asked if I was in line. That’s when I realized the man from the bookstore was standing beside us—at the front of the line. He was, I then observed, the kind of guy I’d have fallen for back when I was single. Perhaps he was a professor (and that’s why he read so much). I’d once had a thing for professors and dated more than a few in between my two marriages.

I found myself apologizing again, this time to the woman for getting out of the line (if I’d actually ever been in it) and asked if she would mind terribly if we jumped in ahead of her; I brought my ginger brew with me, still not sure whether it was alcoholic. At that moment, the man with the sexy glasses said something achingly clever about democracy and lines. Whatever it was he said (and neither Ethan nor I can remember what he said), sounded like it came directly out of a New Yorker piece. Hell, it sounded like it came straight from the pages of an f—ing novel. I felt speechless, but instead of keeping silent, I had to make a moronic comment in response — as I’m wont to do when bedazzled by verbal mastery (neither Ethan nor I remember what I said).

Eventually, we all sat down at different tables with our food. “Sexy Glasses” ended up at a table near the front with Ben Percy. Couldn’t he just get Percy to give him a copy if they’re this close? I’d wondered. To make myself feel better, I suppose, I leaned over to Ethan and whispered, “That’s one heck of a pretentious dude over there.”

It wouldn’t be the end of Sexy Glasses that evening. We walked by him later on our way into the auditorium where he was purchasing Thrill Me from the Magers and Quinn staff member sent to The Loft to sell books that evening. I admit, I felt a slight twinge of guilt at the sight. But then I heard him telling the woman from Magers and Quinn (as if she knew who he was), “Ben’s teaching from one of my books this fall.”

One of his books? So he’s a writer—of more than one book, I thought. What’s he published? Probably a few B-list spy thrillers. *Oh, the petty writer envy that fills the soul of an unpublished writer.*

I dismissed all (most) thoughts of Sexy (I had to drop the “glasses” part now—knowing he was a published writer; sexy said it all) and took a seat with Ethan behind the reserved seating area up front. Of course, three minutes later, Sexy walked into the auditorium and took a seat in front of us, in the reserved area. Ben Percy solicited Sexy’s perspective multiple times throughout his reading (I love Percy’s book, Thrill Me, by the way—I don’t want that fact to get lost in all of this writerly foreplay).

Two nights after Ben Percy’s reading, I awoke in the middle of the night with a sick feeling. From the depths of my declining memory bank, it hit me. I laughed my I’m-so-stupid laugh; my husband stirred to ask “What?” before immediately falling back to sleep.

Before smacking my forehead—hard—I had to make sure. I proceeded quietly downstairs to where my laptop was recharging in the living room. I lifted its lid and googled “Jonathan Franzen” at 4:22 am. About 600 photos came into view. I opened a few for a closer look.

Instead of screaming, I stuffed the fuzzy fleece blanket draped across my shoulders into my mouth and bit down really hard. I missed not one, but four opportunities to interact with Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan F—ing Franzen! (but as Ethan pointed out to me later, what would I have said when I couldn’t manage to respond intelligently to his “democracy of lines” comment?) A search of Ben Percy’s Facebook page later confirmed that Jonathan Franzen had indeed attended the reading.

It goes without say, I should probably fail the “Intro to Publishing” class that I’m in this semester, if for no other reason than my refusal to share the extra copy of Thrill Me with Franzen. Not many people in this life get to say they were stingy with Jonathan Franzen. Just writing about it here today, I’m pretty sure I need to find an alcoholic ginger brew and, at age 46, take up drinking.

Notes:

*Above video is a recreation, not the actual event. 

*Objects appear closer in the mirror.

Outside Writerly Longing

On September 30, 2016, I was privileged to spend time with the Editorial Director of Beacon Press (“Beacon”), Gayatri Patnaik, via a phone interview. Patnaik has been at Beacon for fourteen years. Speaking with Patnaik brought me back to some of my own career memories. I spent time on the editorial side of publishing, in an acquiring editor role, as well as Publisher of the West Academic imprint. If I’d stayed in my role at West, I too would be celebrating my fourteenth year with that publishing business.

In talking to Patnaik, I was reminded of the joys (and yes, some of the stresses) of working in publishing. The interview served as an interesting touchstone for me; it provided both a glimpse into my past and a contemplative look towards my potential future, as I consider what road to take—from a career standpoint—with my MFA in Creative Nonfiction.

As much as I’ve wanted to be a writer—and spent a good deal of time bemoaning my lack of time to write when I was in an editorial role (a review of my religiously maintained journals reveals how often I expressed longing for time to write back then)—I find myself wondering if I might not want to return to a publishing career. I’ve been known to say that acquiring books and assisting authors in the “birthing” of their books can be nearly as exciting as publishing your own book (although I’ve never published a book, so I don’t actually have a basis for comparison).

To the above point, Patnaik was excited to tell me about one of “her” books—meaning one that she signed and edited—that was to publish just days after our interview. The book, entitled “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, written by Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz and Dina Gilo-Whitaker, is also part of a new series that Patnaik is developing. To get a feel for the kind of writing in this book, check out the blog entry by one of the book’s authors, called “Surfing and Indigeneity,” which can be found on Beacon Broadside.

I think it would be an honor and privilege to be a Beacon editor, to be part of the kind of intellectual, progressive, yet accessible titles that Beacon publishes. Title’s like Beacon’s backlist title and top-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, which is a book that changed my life (multiple times).

Even after we discussed Patnaik’s typical day at Beacon, which often involves back-to-back meetings, and I learned that Patnaik’s hands-on editing tends to take place during her evenings and weekends, I still asked her (feeling a little foolish) if she too was a writer. Ms. Patnaik took my question in good humor, for which I was very grateful (at every juncture, she was a gracious interviewee). She acknowledged that a fair number of those drawn to editorial careers have aspirations of writing (some manage to do both); she is not one of them. She has, however, always loved books and reading. She often advises would-be writers, applying for editorial positions, to consider taking a job that supports their writing and leaves them more time to write.

I felt somewhat in awe (and envious) of Patnaik’s ability to inhabit her role so passionately and completely, without feeling the uncomfortable polarity of wanting something else. I said, “you probably have a lot of peace with your role.” In reply to my comment, she said, “I think so.”

I realize now that, to her, my question may have seemed “out of context” because she herself was not privy to all of the inner conflict that I suffered from while working as an editor, always longing to be writing my own words. During this time “off” that I’ve taken to raise my son, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with longing to return to my prior role in the publishing world, even though this time has allowed me the opportunity to explore my own writing and pursue an MFA.

I find myself wondering if the desire to write is more curse than blessing. People who manage to live outside this longing seem such well-balanced, healthy individuals. To exist outside the writerly drive, seems kind of like bliss. Perhaps, after this mid-career writing and parenting hiatus, I’ll reenter the publishing world with balanced contentment.

Publishing Terminology in Context

I spent a decade in the legal publishing industry as an editor, acquisitions editor, then publisher. During my time in publishing, I believe I encountered all of the terms and jargon used in the publishing world. These terms, however, weren’t always so clear. During my first months as an acquisitions editor, I remember attending the weekly production meeting and feeling like everyone around me was speaking a foreign language; quite frankly, they were.

The bulk of these production meetings entailed slogging through lengthy spreadsheets of frontlist titles. The folks in production checked in with the editors—who connected with authors prior to the meeting—about the potential for missed deadlines. During the meeting, editors would give the production team a good sense about titles that could be expected in the next few weeks, as well as “pushing out” titles that would be slipping (at times, titles would be pushed out an entire year—getting “bumped” off the frontlist—at the request of the author).

The production team never arrived empty-handed, but would bring a variety of items related to the editors’ books in process. These items, such as front matter and cover design mock ups, required editorial sign off. Each week we’d also do one last check on print runs before books went to press. It was important to provide as accurate as possible an estimate, so that we wouldn’t have to destroy stock as it returned to us from bookstores. Our books were rarely taken out of print—instead, we’d publish an updated edition as new legal decisions arose, which significantly changed the law.

During my first few months in these production meetings, I’d hear terms such galleys, gutters, trim size (I was even provided my own special ruler for measuring “picas”—as if I knew what picas were), and signature pages (which consist of the smaller grouping of pages stitched or glued together to comprise a book). Back then, I would have been overjoyed to have been provided the links to some online lexicons of publishing terms.

I eventually picked up the jargon and even spent time down in the bindery, sometimes checking out the covers of a new series that I developed, sometimes approving the first few printed copies of an important title. Occasionally, we’d bring in authors for advisory board meetings and we’d all tour the bindery together. It is truly awe-inspiring to watch books being made. If you ever have a chance to tour a bindery, I highly recommend you take advantage of the opportunity. Although I worked for a legal publishing company, books from publishing houses all over the country were printed in our bindery. I was quite amused when I once saw paperback romance novels—with their ripped-bodice cover art—stacked beside formal leather-bound law dictionaries.

Interestingly, I encountered one term in this lexicon that I hadn’t previously known: black swan, which is defined as a book that proves an unexpected success. The Harry Potter series is considered a black swan. I guess we didn’t have many such “black swans” in the legal publishing industry, but as an acquisitions editor, you’d hope to acquire that occasional “home run” casebook that managed to capture a substantial percentage of the market from a competitor’s title that dominated a particular subject. We had one such title in the area of Criminal Law. I am still friends with the author of that book and plan on telling him that his book is a “black swan.” Unfortunately, I was not the acquiring editor of this “best selling” (in the academic publishing world, “best selling” translates into “widely-adopted”) title.

Perhaps I can write a black swan one day; a girl can dream!

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I took this photo at an editorial meeting, showing the less serious side of editors.