A Tale of Two Bombs

For my applications to MFA in Creative Writing Programs, I have to submit both a personal statement and a writing sample. I wanted to share with you the personal statement I wrote as to why I want to pursue the MFA.

One of the schools to which I am applying is Southern New Hampshire University (which is a 100% online program). They asked me to address the following: explain how someone else’s story – such as a novel, movie, or a personal account – has impacted your life and influenced your drive to become a writer.

Here’s what I had to say:

I was twenty-one years old in the spring of 1996. I had been working on campus in the Office of International Programs, a job I loved because it was all about studying abroad and travel. Tucked at the back of our department were two smaller offices that belonged to faculty in the English department. While I had never taken a class from Dr. T., she was someone who was gregarious and often engaged me in conversation because she knew I loved to read.

I graduated that May and as a gift, my parents allowed me to audit a two-week study abroad program to Italy. On my last day of work, Dr. T. pressed a mass-market paperback into my hands and told me it would rock my world.

I started reading it on the plane to Milan and was immediately engrossed. So much so that I stayed up as night bled quickly into the next morning to find out what happened next. I read it on trains, and at night in my hotel rooms in Florence, Rome, and Siena. Stunning art and architecture surrounded me by day and a great story, well-told, filled my nights.

Finally, in Venice, I finished it. I was sharing a room with two other women and they were both sound asleep. But I had been so completely electrified and inspired by that book that I wanted to jump from bed, fling open the shutters and shout into the darkness of the city: “You must stop what you are doing immediately and read this book!”

The title? A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

Dr. T. was right, my world had indeed been rocked to the foundations. I had always toyed with the idea of writing fiction seriously, but in the moment I finished that book something shifted. I was so astonished by the way Irving gathered together plot threads. Then he didn’t just neatly tie them together at the end, he wove them into a fuse that exploded a bomb in my mind.

If someone so unknown to me as John Irving could have that much impact upon me with a novel, I knew then and there that I wanted to do that. I wanted in.

By nature, life mostly does not go according to plan. I went on to get a second bachelor’s degree, but during my time at the University of Minnesota I took many literature and creative writing classes. I loved them as much as the classes in my major.

In 1999 I had two bachelor’s degrees (one in Anthropology and one in Art History). I knew plainly and painfully that I was neither truly motivated nor brilliant enough to pursue an advanced degree in either subject. While I loved both disciplines, it was the stories they told that held the most fascination for me. 

I did write, but not steadily. I knew I had the requisite talent to create stories and novels, and the muse occasionally got me by the throat and I would write furiously for a couple weeks. But I did not have the dedication nor the drive to create a portfolio in my early twenties.

Even so, I knew that books and literature were it for me. So, I did the only thing I could think of that would surround me with stories that paid well and had health insurance: I became a librarian. It was practical and it helped to lull me into a false sense of being part of the literary world.

It worked for a while, but I knew deep down it wasn’t enough. 

By my mid-thirties I desperately wanted to write something. I craved it. But I had no ideas. I started looking at mythology, thinking I could retell a story from the Greek pantheon. Then, on March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm, I was scrolling through a web page on the nine muses when I hit on the idea that would become my first novel. Like the explosion that had been detonated by A Prayer for Owen Meany, this too packed lots of gunpowder. I was a live wire, smoking and snapping with the charge I just received.

I was so excited that evening as I went for a walk with my husband. I gamboled around him like a baby goat, telling him about the story I was planning. Details and plot points flew at me in a rush. And with that second bomb, I started writing. Really writing.

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in twelve weeks. I have written three other novels since and have ideas for three more on the back burner. I have a steady, faithful writing habit I have sustained for ten years. Only once, after my mother died after a protracted illness, was I unable to write for grief. But I eased back in by writing flash fiction and working up to short stories. I even got some of them published.

My reasons to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing are twofold. The first is I want to be surrounded with writing in my day job–I want to teach at the college level. The MFA will get me there. The second, and most important, is I simply want the experience. I want to indulge and immerse myself in a program that will engage my critical thinking again and make me a better writer. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

I have come a long way since that night in Venice when John Irving blew my mind. I now possess the maturity and motivation to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and a portfolio to show for it. I will never forget the gift Dr. T. gave me that day she presented me with that well-worn paperback. A Prayer for Owen Meany cracked me open to the endless possibilities of stories and the devastating effect of great writing.

I want that.

The 28 Year Wait

Last New Year’s Eve my husband and I were at a party at our friends’ house and Fabiana announced at the dinner table that this year for her birthday she was going to get a tattoo. And I immediately piped up with, “Can I come with you?”

I already have a tattoo. I got it in late 1992 when I was 18 years old. I got it on my rib cage just below my left breast. It is your typical cliche: a heart and dagger with a cross behind it. I picked the design out of a book and a woman with long red hair and tattoos of snakes twining down her arms inked it for me. She scared the hell out of me but was very kind and gentle. She even offered a teddy bear for me to cling to if I wanted.

I still like my tattoo and never once regretted getting it. Of course, almost no one ever saw it, me not being the bikini-wearing type of person. It was my own little secret that only a few were privy to.

I went on a study abroad tour when I was 20. We studied for five weeks in Oxford then had a three-week tour of Western Europe by bus. That’s when I first noticed the fleur de lis. A stylized picture of a lily, it was everywhere: all over the churches in France, on the city crest of Florence, everywhere. I liked it. To me it spoke of the history and art and travel that I so desperately loved.

I went back to Italy in 1996, a year later, and was once again suffused with the history and art and love of travel. The fleur de lis was everywhere, constantly reminding me of the things I loved. It was that summer in Florence that I adopted the fleur de lis as my own personal symbol.

I have many representations of the fleur de lis. Earrings, a necklace, a brooch I used to wear on my good winter coat back when I needed one. I had it on glassware, I made a mosaic of one:

It has been a constant in my life. And over the years it has only strengthened. Now, I have even impressed more meaning into this symbol. 

There are three petals. Each petal signifies one of the following: art, history, and travel. And the thing that binds them altogether? Writing. It could not be a more perfect representation of me. I am the fleur de lis and the fleur de lis is me. 

Not that I’m going to start asking people to call me that. Or go by a symbol instead of a name like Prince did for years. It is my totem.

Back to New Year’s Eve. I had not known when Fabiana announced she wanted to get a tattoo for her birthday that she had been announcing this for years and always fell short of going through with it. (She hates needles and pain.) But when I jumped in and offered to go with her she was sort of stuck. Now someone else wanted to share her experience and I guess she didn’t want to disappoint me?

Her birthday is in March and so we made appointments with a really great tattoo artist in Tampa named Adam Dunning with Visionary Tattoo in Tampa. We chose him because Fabiana’s daughter, who has a lot of tattoos really likes him because he’s a fabulous artist and a really nice guy.  

But then COVID-19 hit and everything went to hell.  We had to cancel our appointments because of the stay at home order. But we waited and they opened back up at the beginning of June. Our new appointments were made and they happened last Saturday, June 13th.

Fabiana had to go first or she might not go at all, and I wanted her to do this because she’d been wanting this for a very long time. She was a trooper. She got the clam shell symbol of the pilgrims that walk the road to Santiago de Compostela, because she did just that. She walked however many hundred miles all by herself. It is a reminder to her that she can do anything. Even get a tattoo. She lay on the cot, didn’t move her arm a muscle and did not cry.

My turn next. After Adam had fastidiously cleaned everything he put the stencil on my wrist, I lay down on the cot, and he got started. It stung, but it didn’t really hurt too much. Apparently I have a high tolerance for pain because I didn’t flinch once. I just lay there with my eyes closed and breathed. 

And then it was done. 

I absolutely love it. It means so much to me that I can look down whenever I want and remind myself what matters most in my life. (Besides my husband and my Dad who top the list, of course.)

I chose the inside of my right wrist because I wanted to be able to see it whenever I wanted. I also want the world to see it, and let those interested ask me about it so I can tell them a little bit about who I am. Because in the 28 years between tattoos I no longer feel the need to keep my story a secret. The world can share it with me and I’m fine with that.

I don’t think I’ll get another one. I can’t think of a more perfect representation of who I am. Of course, as we grow and evolve, things do change. I hope to never stop growing, so maybe there will be another symbol in the future that means more to me than this one. But it has stood by me for twenty-four years, so I’m pretty sure it’s okay to set this one in the flesh.

 

 

 

 

Eileen Cook: Five Questions

with-maliceI studied abroad when I was in college, and it was the best thing that had happened to me up to that point. Living and going to school in another country takes you out of your element and exposes you to new ways of being, and for that I am forever grateful.

But what if my time abroad had ended in tragedy? What if I woke up in a hosptial and had no recollection of how I had landed there or what had happened? Eileen Cook takes a look at that very premise in her young adult thriller With Malice.

A girl wakes up and doesn’t know where she is.  At least she remembers who she is, Jill Charron, a National Merit Scholar and state debate champion. But how she woke up connected to machines and tubes, an enormous pain in her head and a broken leg, she has no idea. The last thing she remembers is being with her friends Simone and Tara. But when her parents inform her she’s been in a car accident Jill is terrified she’s going to miss her study abroad trip. That’s when the second nasty surprise comes –she’s already been, the accident had happened in Italy.

With a traumatic brain injury Jill can’t remember a thing about going to Italy, let alone the accident that put her in the hospital. What really happened? Bit by bit Jill starts to put the pieces together and finds that the truth may or may not be more than she can stomach. Who is Niccolo? And had she and her best friend Simone really been fighting over him? Was the accident all her fault?

Told with a tense plot that reveals breadcrumbs to lead us back to the real story, With Malice is a twisty, dark thriller. Not knowing who to trust, Jill needs to untangle the fact from the fiction and discover just what part she played in the tragedy, and what really happened between Niccolo, Simone, and herself.

FIVE QUESTIONS

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

There were a few things that came together to form the idea of this book. I’m fascinated with long-term friendships and how they survive and evolve, or don’t. I knew I wanted to write about two friends who had been in a relationship for so long that at times it was hard to tell where the good parts and the bad intersected. I’d also worked for over twenty years in the field of vocational rehabilitation assisting with people with injuries and illnesses. I’d done a lot of work with individuals with brain injury and taking the opportunity to explore identity and relationships when you can’t trust your own memory was exciting.

Once I wrote a full draft of the manuscript I knew it was missing something and two other pieces of inspiration fell into place. The first was that I was planning a trip to Italy and it occurred to me to set the book there. I did a semester abroad while in college. It was an amazing experience, but there is something very disorienting about being so far away from home and your own culture. I felt it would give Jill an extra push to explore her friendship if they were out of their current element. As I prepared for the trip I started to read more about the Amanda Knox trial and that motivated me to add the pressure coming from the media- where everyone else is deciding your guilt or innocence based on very little information.

The final bit of inspiration came from the first season of the Serial podcast by NPR. (If you haven’t listened- download it- you’ll thank me.) It’s a true crime story about a murder trial that happened in the 1990s. With each person that told their story I would shift my feelings. “He’s totally innocent! He’s guilty! Wait-he’s innocent!” I wanted to see if I could recreate that feeling for readers by providing them with new perspectives that might change how they felt about the story line.

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

When I started writing it took me a long time to realize that what works for one writer might not work for another. I always encourage people to try different processes and see what fits their style.

What works for me is to spend time plotting and planning before starting to write. Sometimes this includes writing diary entries from different character’s point of view, making timelines, and endless lists.  I used to jump in as soon as I had an idea, but I’ve learned it’s better to let an idea ferment for a period of time.  Like wine, it gets more complex and interesting if it sits for a while.

I usually get up early and walk the dogs or go to the gym before settling in with a cup of tea and getting to work.  I’m not creative before eight in the morning or after ten at night. I usually have three or four hours of writing/creative time before my brain gives up.  I spend the rest of my day doing more business things, marketing, teaching, research etc.  Also looking at random things on the Internet, yelling at my dogs to stop digging in the yard, and drinking endless cups of tea.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

In some ways I find this an impossible question because I am terrified I’ll leave someone out. From Judy Blume who I loved with a white hot passion growing up, to Stephen King who was one of the first to inspire me to want to be a writer. (Can you imagine two more different writers if you tried?)  With every book I read I’m interested to see how that writer chose to tell that story, the decisions they made from when to start the story, to whose perspective to how they increased the tension. I try and learn from everything I read. I don’t believe there is any one (or even two or three) writers that directly influenced my writing- it would be all of them.  One of the things that still gives me great joy is standing in a library or bookstore and being aware of just how many great books are out there to read. And writers just keep making more!

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I love the idea of listening to music, but I find that when I do I tend to start singing along. No one wants that. I sound like someone stepping on a hamster when I sing. I will sometimes play movie soundtrack music in the background while writing. I find the music is designed to invoke an emotion so it can inspire me. For example, if I’m writing an action scene then the Indiana Jones theme song might be on.

5. What are you reading right now?

I’ve recently read two books that I’m excited about. Both are coming out in June and I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek. (There are some benefits to being a writer!) I just finished a book called The Party by Robyn Harding. It’s the story of a slumber party where something goes horribly wrong and how all members of the family unravel after the event. The other book is The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy about two girls who are homeless after their mom’s death and how far the older sister will go to protect her younger sister. In both books there’s a mix of YA and adult perspectives and I found how the different ages viewed the situations really interesting. Plus they’re great reads!

eileen-cookEileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in eight different languages. Her books have been optioned for film and TV. She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. Her newest book, With Malice, came out in June 2016 and was called “a creepy and satisfying thriller” by Entertainment Weekly. She’s an instructor/mentor with the Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program.
You can read more about Eileen, her books, and the things that strike her as funny at http://www.eileencook.com. Eileen lives in Vancouver with her husband and two very naughty dogs and no longer wishes to be anyone or anywhere else.

It’s a thrill-ride that ends in a crash. Get your copy here:

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R is for…

RRoman Forum

I have visited twice —  the first was my study abroad tour in 1995, the second was another study abroad tour to Italy in 1996. I spent three weeks visiting Florence, Siena, Assisi, San Gimignano, Rome, Ravenna and Venice.  I sorely wanted to write about Ravenna and its amazing mosaic-filled churches, but my photos did not turn out well at all. This was back in the age when you actually had film in your camera and had no idea whether your pictures turned out until you developed them.

Roses

Instead, I got some breathtaking photos of the Roman forum. Walking through the ruins is an interesting experience. Everything is skeletal and it is hard to picture what these broken teeth of columns and foundations of buildings must have been like in the glory of their construction. But here and there are bits of unexpected beauty that have lasted through the centuries.

A vestal virgin

A vestal virgin

A pile of toppled columns

A pile of toppled columns