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.

Plague Diaries #3

Yesterday I talked about all the things I worried about. And I talked myself right into a lovely little panic attack. So today I am taking new measures to stop the anxiety from ratcheting up exponentially.

  1. I am going to stop checking the state numbers obsessively. The Florida Department of Health reports the increase in positive cases twice daily. Up until now I was online at 11 am and 6 pm to see how much we had increased. It was making me crazy.
  2. I am going to limit my exposure to the news and Facebook to once a day, and then only spend a very short amount of time reviewing.
  3. I am going to find activities that are comforting to me. For example, reading old favorite books that are like home to me. I’m going to rewatch the Great British Baking Show from the beginning. Even though I’m a low-carb, no sugar girl, it is still satisfying to see friendly people making cakes and biscuits and bread.
  4. I’m going to find reasons to laugh. Watching the British comedy shows like Would I Lie to You and QI always take me out of my head for a while.
  5. I’m going to stop judging other people for their inability to take self-distancing seriously. I’m taking care of me and mine and that’s all I can do.
  6. And if I still feel like I have a kaleidoscope of rabid butterflies in my stomach, I have anxiety medication (used sparingly) that can help me settle down.

My husband and I had a conversation yesterday about being brave. We do need to go forward with the attitude that everything is going to work out. And if it doesn’t we have to face the worst without falling apart. I’m not equating courage with stupidity–I’m still practicing self-isolation. But we need to put on a brave face and not let our fear overwhelm us. This is a war. And I am not going to go quietly to death.

Take care of yourselves. Check in with each other. Practice kindness.

I’ll see you on the other side.

Love, Anna

Nerd is the New Black

I’ve never claimed to be cool. That is just not in my makeup. I’m not into parties or dressing edgy. I’d much rather have a beer with a few close friends or read, or sit with some needlework. I remember one time when I was in grad school a friend called to ask if I wanted to have lunch. She had asked me what I was doing, and I replied “Oh, just sitting on the couch, knitting and watching Unsolved Mysteries.” There was silence on the other end of the line, and then the question, “What, are you 82?”

Holly Hat Clown–Red Skelton

Yeah. I’m a nerd. Look at the needlepoint project I’ve been obsessively working on the past few weeks. It was a kit I discovered in my grandmother’s sewing basket after she died seven years ago. Mom told me she had bought needlepoint projects for all of her grandchildren at one point, but never finished them. This one had barely been started. I was also told that this particular project had been intended for my cousin Scott, who was just a little kid at the time. Hey Scott, you’re welcome.

I have hung onto this thing for years and never worked on it more than a few stitches here and there. But I dug it out right before the hurricane and started on it again, and somehow it clicked this time. I’ve been rabidly stitching ever since, and binge watching TV shows on Netflix. And just to prove what a total nerd I am, I watched the documentary series The Royal House of Windsor and and am now halfway through Secrets of Great British Castles. So, yeah.

I hope to finish this in time for Christmas. I plan on making it into a pillow to put in my office. It’s so awful that I absolutely adore it.

What’s my point? That I am proud of my nerd status. When I was in my teens and twenties it really bothered me that I wasn’t more outgoing, that I was awkward in large groups, that parties gave me wicked anxiety.  I did get better at it, I learned how to relax and be more outgoing, although it still takes its toll. But in my 40’s I have found that I really like me. I think I’m pretty cool just how I am.

I’m proud of my clown. I can’t wait to see how he looks in my office. I’ll post a picture when Old Red is complete.

Again, Scott, you’re welcome.

 

Only Good Things

Good things happened today.

It is the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter being published in the US. That is a marvelous anniversary to observe. I always thought about which house I would have been sorted into. I don’t quite know if I’m quite clever enough to be a Ravenclaw, I know I am not ruthless enough to be a Slytherin, but I am a hard worker so I think I would have done nicely in Hufflepuff.

Today was a good day for another reason–I sent the manuscript of my book to my agent in New York. Can I just pause for a moment and give him some love? Alex Slater at Trident Media Group is my champion. He fell head-over-heels in love with my first book and demanded (very politely) that he be allowed to represent me. Goodness, who doesn’t want that? He’s tirelessly enthusiastic, kind but direct, and believes in me and my writing. I know how lucky I am to have him in my corner. I hope that he will love The Abduction of Audrey Bettencourt as much as I do.

Now that I have sent it off to Alex I am quite without an occupation. I’ve been slaving over this manuscript in every spare moment for months now. I know I should be looking ahead to the next book and I shall, but first I think I’m going to do a little reading. It might be time to revisit the Harry Potter series and remind myself that I would have done well in Gryffindor too.

What Happened to My Reading Life?

my reading life copy

It is Friday, February 19, 2016. So far this year, I have not finished reading a book.

Not. One. Single. Book.

For those of you who know me, this is about as batshit crazy as I get. My husband calls me a “Reading Fool.” When I started this blog, I had hoped to write one book review a week. It started out that way but when you don’t read, you don’t review.

What the hell happened, you ask? I can’t believe this, but I got too busy to read. Since January 1, this is me:K7bdG

I’ve been working on opening an Etsy shop. (More about that soon.)I have been purging all the closets in my house. I have been shooting arrows. I have been going to the gym. Above all, I have been editing my book. I have almost finished editing this draft and then all that’s left will be the final polish to make it shine like the top of the Chrysler building. (Bonus points to anyone who caught the Annie reference.)

Seriously. When I get a spare moment, and they are far in between, I am usually so tired I fall asleep. And when I do try to read (for instance on Sunday mornings with a cup of coffee and a purring cat beside to me), I can’t concentrate for very long because I feel there are other things I should be doing. So I read a few chapters and then get going with my day.

I do know that this particular cycle can’t continue. I will read two books in the next two months, if only because I am leading two book discussions at the library: one in March and one in April. March’s selection is Longbourn by Jo Baker and April is How to Be Both  by Ali Smith. Yes, I chose both books without reading them only on the merits that they sounded interesting. I do that all the time with book discussions. We librarians play fast and loose with your literary lives and you don’t even know it.

So I am going to have to force myself to slow down and read for a bit. Either that or I am going to have to be very good at faking my way through a book discussion…

Just kidding. I’ve never done that before.

Honest.