Ann Klotz on The Writing Life

Sometimes, you meet a person who just opens your heart and soul. This past October, I met writer Ann Klotz at a Kate Hopper retreat. Ann and I had known one another online for a while, but this was our first in-person meeting.

Everything Ann wrote at that October retreat was a heart song. Ann seems to possess an almost natural ability to spin words into gold. Not only a writer, Ann also is the Headmistress of Laurel School in Cleveland, Ohio.

Ann writes in her latest essay, “Writing is Everything,” about the struggles she has with finding writing time. I relate to everything in this essay at a deep soul level. Yet it seems that Ann, when she does write, has no trouble dropping right into the kind of soul writing I wrote about a few blog posts back, after I returned from the October Kate Retreat.

These days, whenever I see that Ann has published a new essay, I drop everything and read it, right away. I know it will move me, I know it will be important in a way that elevates the everydayness of life into a heart-gripping tale of my own life. Ann has an uncanny knack at tapping into the universal. If you too are trying for a writing life, I hope you too drop everything and read Ann’s latest essay up on Brevity today.

via Writing is Everything

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

Agate Internship

I am posting this video, a “flash seminar,” for my Immersion in Publishing class; it’s one of the final assignments of my MFA in creative nonfiction program. I graduate in just a few weeks! I am experiencing a mix of emotions as I round the final bend in the road.

Timeline Math: How Endings Begin

I like “timeline” math. It’s really the only kind of math I enjoy. Here’s an example of how it works: I zero in on a number, like my youngest son’s age. He’s lived seven and a half years, as of today. I then figure out how old he’ll be in that same amount of time, looking forward; counting from today, he’ll be 15 years old. I might then figure out how old I’ll be when he reaches that age. I’ll be 53 (not sounding so old anymore). I usually then move on to figure out something like how old I was when my oldest—my daughter—was fifteen. I was 37 years old (now seems incredibly young). I have no idea where timeline math gets me, in the end. It’s just something I do, perhaps because I’m a planner.

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Photo of me on my 30th birthday (which is 37 – 7); H was 7 and E was 5. J would still be in the unborn ethers for 9 more years. (video below is E at 15)

Today marks the beginning of week three of my final semester of my MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Bay Path’s semesters last 16 weeks. Because we get one week off for spring break, there are really only twelve weeks of my MFA program remaining. I was 44 years old when I began the program; I’ll be nearly 47 when I graduate. Hopefully, this leaves me time (before I die) to pursue the many writing projects my brain is entertaining.

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading about Ann Patchett’s writer’s path. She was 21 when she began Iowa Writers’ Workshop; presumably she was then 23 when she graduated. She was 27 when she published her first book. As hard as I run at this new career path, I’ll never catch up. There’s some relief in admitting I entered this writing game late. There’s also some relief in acknowledging I’ll never be Ann Patchett (particularly since I haven’t the slightest clue how one write’s fiction). Finally, as much as I’ve loved the Bay Path program, it’s fairly indisputable that it is not (yet) in the same league as Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Interestingly, Patchett does not speak glowingly of her MFA experience, or even of the inherent value of an MFA. I, in turn, will speak highly of my MFA experience, particularly of the accessible, one-on-one relationships that I’ve shared with writers like Kate Whouley, Lisa Romeo, and Mel Allen. I’ll also sing praises to the wonder of Suzanne Strempek Shea, who I encountered during Bay Path’s Ireland Field Study Program, which—thanks to Suzanne—is the crown jewel of the Bay Path MFA program. I will actually be sad (even depressed) to release my student status in mere weeks. This course of study was always less about the degree, or end result, than it was about the process along the way. For me, the journey was worth the sacrifice of time and money, even if I don’t end up with a $45,000 publishing agreement for my first book, as Patchett did, within a few years of graduating.

Immersion in Publishing is the only class on my roster this semester. It involves some class assignments but mostly time spent immersed in a publishing internship. I chose to do my internship locally, with Agate magazine—a journal that has a regional focus on the greater Great Lakes area. I might have, instead, procured an “East Coast” journal gig, as most of these internships can be completed online. Bay Path itself is fairly East Coast orientated. Although nonresidential, there are times I’ve felt a certain lack of connectedness with the program because I can’t simply “drive” to Bay Path to participate in some of its writing events.

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H at age 16, with her host grandmother during her year living in Nagasaki, Japan as an exchange student (can’t believe it has been 7 years since that year). She was 15 when she applied to Rotary–with singleminded determination–for this opportunity.

Lately, I’ve wondered if I limited myself by procuring an internship in “Middle America.” That said, I’m likely to stay in the Midwest (I’m 46—as we covered above—and I haven’t left yet) and to prevent the anticipated void of writing mentors at the end of this program, I hope to have developed some potential Minnesota-based mentors. Although I’m doing acquisition work and social media marketing during the course of this internship, which I’ve only just dipped my toes into, Agate co-founders and editors, Laurie and Stephanie, have kindly offered to mentor me. I’ll be following retired MPR reporter, Stephanie, on some of her interviews and Laurie, a naturalist and poet, will work with me during the month of April, National Poetry Month, on developing a nature-based poem—one that might be published in Agate.

One and one equals two new writing mentors (perhaps more) and the promise of new beginnings.

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Me and my childhood bestie, Serah, at age 15.

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.

Chasing the Barbie Dream House

I am entering the final phase of my MFA program, with two classes this semester and a publishing internship next spring. My Intro to Publishing class has us writing blog entries this fall. For this first blog post, we are asked to consider what it means to be “accomplished.”

As I contemplate the term “accomplished,” for some reason I think of a pianist. Even though I suffered eight years of lessons, I do not consider myself (nor am I objectively) an accomplished pianist. An accomplished pianist likely practices far more than I ever did or has some inherent musical talent, or—most likely—a combination of those two factors. An accomplished pianist can sight read difficult music. An accomplished pianist has successful recitals and concerts under her belt; she’s also memorized songs to play impromptu concerts, on demand.

Similarly, although I’ve had wonderful writing teachers and a few years of disciplined writing training (“lessons,” if you will) over the course of my MFA program, I don’t yet feel like an accomplished writer. I could, however, agree that I am “more accomplished” than I was before beginning my MFA. I understand the various sub-genres of creative nonfiction with an intimacy that I lacked before the program. I can also name both trailblazers and current writers within each sub-genre. I might even be able to teach beginning CNF writers a few things, just as I am competent to help my six-year old with the piano lessons he began taking this summer.

In writing, I still equate “accomplished” with “published.” Although I’ve been published in a variety of online publications, many before I started this program—back when I had more time to work on submissions—I probably won’t feel “accomplished” until or unless I have a book sitting on my shelf, with my name on its spine, or my desk is lined with a collection of print magazines and/or literary journals that contain my work. Until then, I’ll likely continue to feel like a fraud when I tell people I am a writer in response to the question, “What do you do?” Sometimes, I think I should just come out with it and admit, “I’m a fake writer,” before being asked the inevitable follow-up, “What do you write?”

I am reminded of how, as a child, I wanted a canopy bed—one with a pink gingham canopy. While I did get the pink gingham bedspread, it wasn’t quite right. At that same time, a friend of mine owned a Barbie Dream House. It was three stories high and had a working elevator, which operated on a rudimentary pulley system. Her multiple Barbie dolls drove a hot pink plastic sports car. I owned but one true Barbie; the rest were cheap plastic “fakes,” with shoulders that easily snapped off and they drove around empty Kleenex boxes or my brothers’ battered G.I. Joe Jeep. One Christmas, I received a plastic Barbie suitcase fashioned to look like a jetliner (I’m certain my mother found it on clearance). It wasn’t terribly fun and it could never match the Dream House.

Not quite right tends to remain not quite right.

I may always equate success as a writer with being published and, because I equate publishing with success, I may struggle to believe I am accomplished without a cadre of print clips or a published book that says “Heidi Fettig Parton” on the spine. That elusive book is my adult-sized Barbie Dream House. Still, what I have learned in my MFA program is that a published book doesn’t make a life. The day after one’s book publishes, she still has to do the laundry (maybe Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t), worry about book sales, and continue the search for her corner of happiness in the world.

I recently read an article about writer and bookstore owner, Ann Patchett in The Guardian. The article quotes Patchett as having said, “[With] every book I think: well, if this one’s really successful, maybe I won’t have to make dinner any more.” She also comments on how there are more important things to her than writing novels. Patchett adds, “The thing that makes me feel really alive is figuring out how I can frighten other people into doing good.”

I am willing to sit with the notion that I don’t require a Barbie Dream House to feel complete (and acceptance alone is an accomplishment). I don’t have time for that right now, however; I still have to make dinner.

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I suppose this was taken in my Barbie Dream House phase. The local newspaper interviewed me about my Judy Blue obsession (I suppose the local library tipped them off). Just to be clear, I wanted to be Judy Blume someday.