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.

May His Memory Be Eternal

It’s a lovely sentiment to say when someone dies: May his/her/their memory be eternal. I first learned this when I married a Greek, as this is their blessing instead of saying, “my sympathies,” or “my prayers are with you and your family,” or, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

It gives a beautiful message that the deceased will continue to live on in the memories of others, passed down through generations of family, or networks of friends. Even though it is a Greek saying, and they are mostly Eastern Orthodox, there is no religious connotation to the phrase, making it applicable to all.

But sometimes memories aren’t eternal. Sometimes there are lives forgotten.

Working at a public library for fifteen years you get to know a lot of people who are alone. And I mean alone–sometimes they have family far away, but a lot of the time I am the only person they talk to in their day, maybe their week.

Dennis Albright was one of these people who spent most of their time alone. He loved Sci Fi  and old horror movies, his favorite movie of all time was Dr. Strangelove.  Mr. Albright always had blood spots on his face from where he nicked himself shaving. He spoke rapidly, almost frenetically, like he had so much information to share he had to do it quickly before his one conversation of the week dried up.

He was a more than a little odd. Another patron told me he used to be a brilliant physics professor but kind of lost his mind when his mother died. He was a writer too, he had his book self-published on Amazon called “Wiener Dogs at War.” I’m not sure it sold very many copies, but it made him happy. Ecstatic.

When we moved last year I was surprised to see him in our parking lot one day. He lived on the second floor of our building, it seemed. He would walk around and around the parking lot for exercise in his highwater pants, white socks and black loafers.  Every time he saw my husband (whom he dealt with most at the library) he would always stop him with the words, “Let me ask you something,” and then launch into a diatribe about pensions, or his writing, or some other subject. Kosta often had a hard time extricating himself.

But last December it all changed. One morning on my way out to the car I saw two police cars sitting in the emergency drive of our building. There was a woman on the second floor walkway on the phone. I heard her say as I got into my car, “You wouldn’t want to be up here today.” I was mildly curious, but didn’t want to pry as it was none of my business.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that we found out that Mr. Albright had died. And not just died, but lay dead in his apartment for two weeks before the smell began to drift into the hallway. We heard from another couple in our building he had died in the bathroom and the police had a hard time getting to him because he had collapsed against the door.

We were shocked and saddened that he was so alone that the lack of his presence went unmissed for two weeks. What a sad ending to what must have been a very lonely existence.

In January a huge dumpster appeared in our parking lot. And within two days the entire contents of his apartment were emptied into it, filling it to the top. We had heard he had no family save for an estranged sister who apparently wanted nothing to do with him. So into the dumpster it all went, an entire life: furniture and cookware, and papers, and probably lots of copies of his book. In another few days it was taken away and that was the end of Mr. Albright.

But that isn’t good enough for me. He may have been annoying, he may have been alone, but no one deserves to end their life that way. So I’m posting this as a memory of him. I hope wherever he is he has lots of friendly companions and lots of wiener dogs to play with.

I’m sorry, Mr. Albright, that I wasn’t a better friend to you. May your memory be eternal.

Taking Stock

Checklist and a pencil

As 2016 draws to a close I think a lot of us take this time to reflect upon what we accomplished in the past year.  I know this was a tough year for a lot of folks, especially those of Generation X, who lost a lot of icons this year like David Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. We knew Bowie was battling cancer so it wasn’t a true shock when he passed, but the other three? Oy. Having grown up in the Minneapolis area, Prince was especially a knife to the heart. I think of all the amazing things he never got to accomplish because he died too soon.

And then of course was the election. I’m not one to talk about my political opinions in public, but I will say I have never seen such an ugly, divisive battle. It was truly heinous to watch. Although not having broadcast TV spared me from the political ads. I wish I could say I was hopeful but I have real concerns about the future of this country and the world.

However, I think it is wrong to say that 2016 was a dumpster fire of a year. On a personal level I had some really good things happen. I finished the first draft of my third novel. Now in 2017 I will begin the revision process and I hope to have something ready to go for my agent in the next few months.

I also had a revitalization at work. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been a Reference Librarian for nearly fourteen years and working with the public has begun to wear me out. But I found a new project on which to work that has me extremely excited. I’m pitching the idea to my director a week from today. If I have her blessing I’ll share more about it then.

I took an amazing trip this summer with my husband. We saw Austria, Germany, and France, spent time with great friends, and drank lots of good beer. We nearly killed ourselves on the 700 steps inside an ice cave, visited the crypt at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, saw Mozart’s birthplace, took the Nightwatchman’s tour in Rothenberg, drank schnapps, saw the graves of Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine, toured Brittany, and climbed to the top of the world at Mont St. Michel.

Some not so great things happened as well. My Dad had triple bypass surgery while we were on vacation. Thankfully Pop has made a full recovery and is doing very well. Mom is still struggling with her health and there isn’t much hope for improvement. Adjustment has been hard for all of us but especially for her. She gets frustrated because she can’t do everything she used to. I can’t blame her, I would go mad.

And of course the biggest hurt this year was that my book didn’t sell. But I am hopeful and excited about my new novel. Think of it as a mashup between Pride and Prejudice and X Men. I’ve had a ridiculous amount of fun writing it and I am looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and digging into revisions. I’m going to start tonight with reading the book through in its entirety and make notes as to what needs attention. Then my husband and I will go through, chapter by chapter and fix things. It’s going to be a long process, but ultimately so rewarding. I’m anxious to get back in the game.

I could never blame a year for being bad. The way I see it, I had another trip around the sun and got to do some amazing things. I look forward to the next year with optimism and hope you do too. No matter our opinion of the state of the world we all need to move forward and make the best of our situations however we can. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating 2017. It’s going to be a great year.