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.

Method Writing: Letting Loose

method writing part 1 copy

 

You’ve heard of method acting, right? Lots of actors use it from Reese Witherspoon and Nicholas Cage to Johnny Depp and Jane Fonda. For those of you not familiar with the idea, it is loosely defined as this:

“Lee Strasberg’s method is based upon the idea that in order to develop an emotional and cognitive understanding of their roles, actors should use their own experiences to identify personally with their characters. The method uses techniques to reproduce the character’s emotional state by recalling emotions or sensations from the actor’s own life.”

I’ve been thinking about this idea and how I could apply it to writing. There is an old adage that one should “write what you know,” but I believe that applies more to writing from your heart and not trying to contrive feelings that fall flat and come across as inauthentic. Because let’s be realistic, if we only wrote about things we were familiar with (i.e. our own life experiences) there would be no science fiction, no fantasy, nor historical fiction, or any other genre but contemporary fiction or biography. And let me tell you that as a librarian, there are already too many memoirs out there and we don’t need more. Unless your life has been extraordinary, no one wants to hear it.

But as is stands, there are a lot of possibilities in broadening one’s experiences to become a better writer. I know a lot of us already live too much in our own heads so it’s good to get out once in a while and try new things.

For the novel on which I am currently working my heroine is a crack shot with not just firearms but also a bow and arrow. I had an archery unit in P.E. in high school (God help me, some twenty odd years ago) and I remember it as the one bright spot for a mostly uncoordinated kid. I was good at it. I excelled at it.

I wanted to remember the feeling of holding the bow in my hand and drawing an arrow. I wanted to think consciously about how it felt, both physically and psychologically. What it was like to take aim and let that arrow loose.

Since I live in South Florida I didn’t have to wait for spring to find a way to try it out again. I found the closest archery range was in North Ft. Myers, which was about an hour’s drive from home. Lee County Archers is a private club but every Thursday afternoon from 2-6 p.m. they offer free instruction for beginners, and even lend you equipment at no charge. I convinced my friend Di to come with me and we went last Thursday. Our instructor John was knowledgable and patient, and a very good teacher.

Taking aim...

Taking aim…

From the moment I loosed that first arrow I was hooked again. We were out there for over two hours shooting. Di was a natural and took to it right away even though she had been a small child the last time she shot a bow and arrow. I was less adept, but I found that as the afternoon progressed my arrow clusters were getting closer and closer together.

The experience will help me tremendously in my writing, I believe. Just knowing the physical sensations will be a huge help when my protagonist picks up a bow and shoots her first arrow. I may never be a dead-eye, but I am going to have fun with it.

Loosed! You can see the yellow fletching of the arrow moving away from me.

Loosed! You can see the yellow fletching of the arrow moving away from me.

In fact, Di and I both loved it so much we are going to find a way to continue without having to drive an hour to North Ft. Myers. It may take some doing, there is equipment to procure, but I think we both want to keep practicing. Our instructor said that someone using a sightless bow would need to practice three times a week in order to steadily improve. I’m sorry, but I can’t make that drive so often.

In case you were wondering, that is a barebow I am shooting. A barebow has the elements of a compound bow but without any sights on it, like a recurve bow. We also tried a regular compound bow and a recurve. The recurve bow was the one I really wanted to work with, but I found that girls with big racks have a problem with their girls getting in the way. No wonder the Amazon women cut off a breast in Greek mythology.

So what am I going to do next? In April I signed up my husband and I for our local Sheriff’s Firearm Safety Class. Four hours of classroom instruction and three hours on the firing range. This one scares the bejesus out of me but that’s kind of the point. Not that I’m interested in owning a handgun, I just want to know what it is like to pick up a pistol and fire it.

But that’s April. Who knows what experiences I will find to enhance my writing before then. I’m always on the lookout…