Category Archives: MFA Creative Writing

Frequency: Tuning into What Works for my Writing

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Creating and balancing a writing life is one of the most challenging part of being a writer in the world.  Now that its been about 2 years post-MFA, I have some reflection space to think about my writing life and how it has changed since MFA:  During my time in graduate school, I was familiar with a certain sense of frequency-  just write, write, write, produce! oh! and know that you will suck cause your new/young, you may as well give up now…I recognize that the high intensity structure of a low residency MFA might not have been the best option for how I learn and develop as a writer.

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It was still a valuable experience! I learned so much and still feel connected to the community I built there, but I couldn’t help but feel as though it was this frantic, drop everything and step out of your life thing (where we gathered for 10 days of work-shopping, reading and seminar).

It was wonderfully all-consuming in that it felt like a writing vacation, but once returning to my normal life, it was difficult to bridge those realities. I know that a huge piece was the fact that I was very recently divorced, single mother of a one year old.  I struggled through the emotional ups and downs and financial difficulties. In one way this made my writing residencies super important as they served as my constant, my time to shift my focus back to the big picture of my life as a creative being.  But, on the downside, it felt like a huge shift post MFA, I started a  new middle school teaching job where it felt close to impossible to maintain a writing flow (other than my blog, and even that was scant).  At that point, I felt strongly about shifting my awareness  towards rebuilding  my personal and emotional life.  Writing most certainly was still at the cornerstones of that, but I simply no longer jived with the culture of guilt I built around myself for not meeting accountability deadlines.

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I became my worse enemy, would feel badly if I didn’t complete a project or submit to a million places that way fellow grads might have been doing.  Thankfully, after a hard, but necessary dry summer (dry, as in lack of writing production), I found that I needed that time to slow down and listen to  my new life frequency. Jobs and ideas shifted, schedules changed, priories reordered.  Recently, I found a local community based writing course that fits perfectly with my schedule and needs.  I get to be back to work-shopping peers, producing writing, all in a more realistic time frame.

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The name of that community organization is (of course) Frequency.  I didn’t read into the name and what it might represent to me till just recently, when I felt like I was finally tuning into what works best for me and my writing now. For example, one of our in class writing exercises was making a list of life moments or events that we either experienced or witnessed that held a lot of weight for us and managed to stay with us or define us over the years.  I began like I normally would listing:  immigration, war, transitioning to life in the US, learning English, changing schools….Then remembering my current writing project ( which is based on what I would want to read and holds tons of inspiration for me) I stopped and made a new list right next to it:

The time the Providence River Cove was uncovered: http://www.urbanophile.com/2012/04/10/providence-the-rust-belts-most-northeasterly-point-by-nicholas-cataldo/

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When police discovered a secret apartment illegally built in the mall: http://consumerist.com/2007/10/03/man-builds-secret-apartment-at-mall-gets-away-with-it-for-four-years/

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living under the mall...

living under the mall…

The gator released into the Providence River:   http://www.ibtimes.com/alligator-living-river-and-four-foot-alligator-found-home-819269

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hmmm? a gator?

hmmm? a gator?

and so on… I know it might not seem like a big deal to others, but for years, my life has been defined by these huge life events I had no control over as a child.  Now for the first time, I have allowed myself to tune into to other frequencies…

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Check out and support Frequency:  http://frequencywriters.org

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Clearing the debris: My ode to Spring

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I won a raffle for this badass house warming cake!

I won a raffle for this badass house warming cake!

The coming of spring is inevitable, but our renewal is not.  Its a choice like everything else. I have to choose which story to believe. What to hang on to and what to let go.

This lesson is not one that was dropped into lap.  Up until recently I would go through the seasons of my life simply reacting- an observer, not participant. It was only after the dissolution of unhealthy relationships, the shedding of toxic cycles, and active spiritual work did I learn to unlearn what no longer served me.  As a result, I have stronger boundaries and love myself first.

We choose our narratives, consciously or not.  During my two year MFA program I almost talked myself out of completing it for several reasons, citing bad timing (post divorce and newly single mother of a 2 year old) and struggling through a  period of unemployment… everything was more important than writing at that point.    Survival trumped art. Until I realized that survival demands creativity.I am ever grateful for my choice to stick out my MFA, because it taught me to put my trust in my power of creation, to write and live a different narrative.

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Another recent example has been the dissolution of a decade long friendship. This occurred simultaneously as my divorce, acceptance to graduate school and all those life changing events…There was a long, painful period of holding on for me…of reacting…of allowing others to dictate the narrative of what might have gone wrong, of what might happen next.  My heart broke more over the loss of my best friend than my ex-husband, she was a supporter and witness of my son’s birth, a fellow artist since our teen years…the most painful part was the question mark of “what happened” that hung over the circumstances, there was never any clarity, never any ‘final’ discussion or argument.  For a long time, I felt that the narrative wasn’t mine to tell…that I could only be in ‘react’ mode and wait for her to speak her truth.

stopping to smell the lilacs.

stopping to smell the lilacs.

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While packing for the big move, I came across a card from her- to celebrate my first mother’s day.  The words she wrote were beautiful, inspiring.   Ali was only 2 months old then and I had stuffed the card somewhere and totally forgot about it. Even though I was in cleaning mode I couldn’t help but weep over it.  I realized I was still holding on to the narrative of ‘maybe’ and the confusion surrounding it.  Even though I intellectually knew it was over for months,  in my heart, it was a different story.  As I sat there rendered helpless by a damn hallmark card, my partner gently reminded me that its okay to be sad and its okay to celebrate it happening in the first place.  My story didn’t need to focus on the end, I could change the narrative, remember it for the wonderful things it was…and at its best, it was supportive, beautiful, and fun.

Daffodils were coming on up...with or without anyone's help.

Daffodils were coming on up…with or without anyone’s help.

That’s what I needed to hear to take my power of creation back…after allowing myself to mourn, I choose to reflect on it from a different chapter…one I own. Much like the daffodils that are sprouting up around our new house, they were due to emerge from the ground whether I prepared for them or not.  But my choice to rake away last winter’s debris, to make room for them to bloom… has resulted in a much more vibrant renewal this spring.

Here.

Here.

Write or be Written.

Writing after MFA: Kinda Like Sex After Childbirth…

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With every post MFA blog post I am realizing that writing after my MFA has kinda been like sex after childbirth.

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No really, stick with me here.

My son is 4 years old now, but i didnt exactly have the a normal time healing from 3rd degree lacerations ( his shoulder was stuck for a while). After 10 months of poop ( and other) discomfort, I finally sought and received physical therpy of  my pelvic floor ( yeah, that’s a thing) and thank goodness for my amazing physical therapist, my pain is gone, and I learned that no it is NOT normal to not “ever be the same” after childbirth.

Contact this amazing PT for more info or help!: http://www.womensmedicine.org/oth/Page.asp?PageID=OTH132991

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Attempting to write since the high of my MFA graduation this past summer is feeling a lot like sex after childbirth… terrifying.  So, ima take what I learned from giving birth and take it slow… one blog post a week to start, pushing myself to story outlines and nonfiction essay ideas next. Teaching middle school immediately following MFA isn’s exactly helpful to keeping up a regular writing routine… but that’s always been the challenge for me and I am sure for other writers/working moms…and the advice I always hear? Be consistent! keep all those muscles working and lubed up…

hmmmm yes.

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Note: I wrote this in a cafe where in-spite of my headphones I could hear the conversation about the resurrection of Jesus and a bunch of bible verses over my shoulder as I was typing about lubed up pelvic floors…Allah loves healthy pelvic floors y’all, keep writing!

Orientalist Travel Posters: Pretty Little Liars

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So what does my graduate seminar about Arab American literature have to do with some old-school travel posters?

Ha! “Imperial”

Well… My seminar discusses Arab American writers’  journey towards self-actualization and self-identification…this journey is made all the more challenging after generations of orientalist and imperialist thinking that attempted to boil our culture down to the bare minimum, creating stereotypes and feeding into racist hierarchical power structures…

All North African women collect water dressed like that, right?

I decided to include some travel posters  from back in the day in my presentation as evidence of orientalist thought and as an example of how the Middle East was defined and in many cases still is…

okay so I get the other images, after all, it was the early 20th century. But what’s THEIR excuse? Apparently Kerri never got the memo that the whole Lawrence in Arabia thing is no longer recommended for good Mideast relations…

“That’s right white folks, this is what we really do”

Orient: Any where east of here…it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same…

Hey! Where did his magic carpet go?

But other images showcase the complexity of oriental imagination existing alongside early Middle Eastern immigrants. Here is a record cover from the 1920’s:

saw an Oriental show and then decided she would go
to Mecca across the sea.…
She stayed there just two years, got full of new ideas,
And now she’s back home again.…
Oh! Oh! Ev’ry one worried so; they think she’s crazy in the dome;
She’s as bold as Theda Bara, Bara’s bare but Becky’s barer,
Since Rebecca came back home.
In Mecca where the nights are hot,
Rebecca got an awful lot of learning.…
Her mother feels so sad. Her brother Moe is mad,
And he keeps on complaining so;
To satisfy his whim, she keeps on calling him,
“Mohammed” instead of Moe.

Interested? Read more here:   cited: http://www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=35055

Not all travel posters depicted stereotypes:

But I think this gets the cake:

Leila Khaled: she’s a G.

This is Etcetera: MFA Wrap up

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In preparation for graduation, we are asked to write a letter to chronicle our journey at Lesley University’s MFA program.  Here is what I came up with:

 

My time at Lesley helped me not only develop my writing but my overall sense of commitment to the writing life.   These two years have allowed me to lay down roots into myself by providing me with the opportunity to ground my life through my creative process.  Lesley has set the stage for this commitment to transform into a lifetime of developing stories and essays.

My journey as a writer began when I learned how to write in English after fleeing the Gulf War in Kuwait. I would write stories about princesses escaping invasions or monsters transforming into people.  Writing was my safe zone, my shock absorber.

 

 

But being a refugee made me feel as though I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time- as though my life couldn’t truly begin yet and I had to delay creative expression.  I needed to save it for another place and time.  Year after year, my mother would set off to explore other cities-traveling to Montréal, Detroit, Orlando, Santa Fe, even San Diego-with the hopes of leaving Rhode Island behind- (which we never did)- since we had to leave Kuwait in such a hurry, I understood that she was trying to make an informed choice about which community to lay down roots.  However, this constant re-imagining of my future had the effect of distancing me from my present reality.

 

I lived in an imagined future, which, for an only child who lived in my mind to begin with, didn’t need much encouraging. From that young age that I was being set up to never truly commit to the present moment, to continue to live in the purgatory of if’s and maybe’s.  Little did I know that there was no such thing as the perfect time.

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                My Lesley journey began shortly after I left my first teaching job.  I taught at a charter school with a unique model, one that places teachers with the same group of 15 students all day for all 4 years of high school. One of my students, Ryan, I regarded as a member of my family after our long talks, family meetings, and journal writing sharing.  Ryan and his family suddenly passed away from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty water heater installation on New Years Day.  I had to face the reality that nothing was guaranteed and life was not waiting for me or anyone else. I found it difficult to put off writing and my creative pursuits for another moment.

That summer, I started researching creative writing programs and visited Lesley’s summer session in June 2008.  At that time, I had no writing sample, felt little inspiration, and had very little confidence, as I hadn’t written in years and had no idea where to begin.  Apparently life had other things in mind because shortly after visiting Lesley I found out I was a pregnant with my son.  The pregnancy, birth, and time to myself allowed me to begin the process of committing to my word and when my son was eight months old, my writing sample poured out like a flood.  The sample that started out handwritten on journal paper turned into The Birthing Tree, my first story to be published (in the Masters Review), which I scribbled between nap-time and cooking.

 

After two years at Lesley, I developed my thesis, a collection of short stories.  I feel that the stories represent my first years of immersing myself in the writing life well.  I have covered an array of themes, narrative styles, and created memorable characters.  My strengths include having varied interests-from science fiction to cultural and generational clashes.  My ideas will keep me inspired for a long time. What I need to continue to work on is to just keep writing- by giving myself more time with my writing each day and continue learning about the world of publishing and business side of writing.  I also need to keep my connections with my fellow writers strong and develop a routine of exchanging stories.  I am looking forward to continuing my Lesley connection strong by becoming involved in the Alumni group.

Overall, I feel that were two years were well spent. I learned how to respect myself by respecting my writing time. I learned to quiet that negative voice in my head long enough to let my imagination do the talking at the keyboard and I learned how to feel out a story by listening to the characters. My first semester I developed my scene building skills and with my second semester, I focused on writing realistic and complex characters. Taking on a full time job during my final year threw me into the fire of the writing life and forced me to face some tough questions about whether it was the best idea to continue with the program.  Only this time, instead of letting outside forces control my sense of timing, I committed to controlling it for myself and decided to stick it out.  As a result, I wrote more than ever in my final year.

 

 

My plans for the future include writing fiction, non-fiction and science fiction, and teaching English to middle school students. I plan on attending next year’s RAWI conference-a conference of Arab-American writers, as well as the AWP conference and staying in touch with my Lesley community for years to come. Most notably, my plans for the future include my continue commitment to my writing, as it has served as both my anchor and  my springboard.

 

 

 

Just Another Grad School Rant

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So after two long weeks of not so patiently waiting for a response to my 4th and final submission of work for my semester, I open up my inbox and  was excited to see that long awaited email… but after the reading the first line, my excitement quickly turned to WTF:

I've re-read your work a few times now, and it really is not up to the 
measure of what I asked from you.

The email went on about how she doesnt know how to respond to my work because she doesn’t think I am working as hard as I could be… Okay, so I only turned in half a new story… but I also had to turn in a reworked craft essay and revisions for another story, totaling over 30 pages of writing, not to mention a detailed reflection as well as an early topic proposal/brainstorm for my graduating seminar…

I assumed I would complete my story in time for manuscript swaps in a couple weeks…why? Because in this program we go for two years straight, no chaser… No month off between the semesters, no 3 months off in the summer…

(and this is after coming to the even harder decision to NOT take a leave of absence seeing as though I have one semester left and taking time off now would not turn out to be what I expected it to be.)  I figure I’ll find a way to be better disciplined and just knock everything out.

I realize she is just trying to push me, but really?  I know what I need to fucking do.  I also know that writing is my lifelong art, not something I expect to jump out of grad school, flip a switch and get amazing at, I know that there are gonna be times ( like when my son is a bit older, when I am working at a job that allows me to actually pay rent on time and not need to be on food stamps), that I will have more time and a more settled brain to expand and reach my potential.

I am more than aware that I need to spend more time writing, but I am also not so arrogant as to ignore the fact that being a writer (especially for a working class woman of color) is an activity of leisure,  and one that requires resources like childcare, extended family, money, prepared food, and most importantly Time.  Unfortunately for me, its an activity I can’t live without.  Just making the jump to pursue an MFA was already proving a lot…to the Arab American community, my family, friends, and myself…

but obviously that is not enough…Time or no Time, Ima need to get badass.

…. with my keyboard

Timing is Everything

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Yes I only have one semester left, but I decided to take a semester leave of absence from my MFA program.  Even though I had considered this option pretty much every semester since I started, I managed to eek it out and be okay with what I was producing…until now.

Timing is everything…

The same week I got my acceptance letter into my creative writing program was the same week my husband  “broke up” with me…(now, I put that in quotes because it was really more of a desertion…not a break up.  “Breaking”  denotes an action, whereas this was very clearly a refusal of action…The opposite of love after all is indifference.

At the time I decided to fully fling myself  into the graduate program and just plow through it, believing that it was my only saving grace during a time when staying still was seriously damaging.   I figured the program was exactly what I needed to put distance between a defining break-up (ehh…I’ld rather call  it “the wake up call”) and a new me.

Except studying creative writing is not the same as studying say…. engineering…The personal is very intimately connected to the very act of writing… and tapping into my creativity, though cathartic when feeling blue… did prove to be a bit difficult while bouncing back and forth to family court,  drafting up yet another cover letter to get myself back to work, or following up with my ex-husband to give me a weekly schedule of days/times he could spend with our son…

I am proud to say I no longer provide the services of a doormat secretary and feel pretty confident my son will be fine whether or not his Dad is “busy”

I quickly realized that what I have to learn isn’t only how to balance life with creative writing… which can be a  challenge in its own right, it is more the learning how to move passed  that “wait, why am I sitting on this computer for hours on rare child-free and sunny Saturday when I could be out...?” Taking in the sun on a park bench…

So for a while I tried combining the two… I would take a trusty notepad out to draft scenes on while taking in the sun on a park bench…or would reward myself after devoting several hours on completing a submission with a night out with friends…

Although writing was healing…my .20$ wing night at Cuban Revolution with my gal pals was coming in a close second…

But this semester things have been much different.  I am finally working full time, and time wise  I have found it nearly impossible to devote 5 hour chunks of time on banging out a short story. …and there has been an unfortunate reduction in  20 cent wing consumption as well… which is just bad for moral.

Since I work full time, I don’t see my son all day and the only thing I want to do when I get home is hang out with him. Not my keyboard and that depressing blank white space on my monitor… Besides, after sitting at a desk most of my day, I find it difficult to sit down for more than a half hour at home which any fiction writer will tell you, is not enough.

I am sad to say that this semester I started breaking the cardinal rule of writing:  sit your ass down and write.

Not to mention this is an important semester, one that will set the foundation for the successful completion of my thesis ( a short story collection) and the development of my graduating seminar ( a 45 minute ‘class’ on a fiction writing topic that tickles my fancy)… and I wasn’t getting ANY where…

I realized I was doing myself a disservice by not having enough time or energy to devote to my writing program… and even though it will just be a semester off, it will make a huge difference… to my sleep, my short stories, and my son.

Because after all; timing is everything.