Wednesday, January 13, 2010

MFA Statement of Purpose: “Writing as Human Connection and Divine Calling"

All the MFA programs I am applying to require a "statement of purpose." The best advice I got was to write it with three things in mind: 1. your past as a writer. 2. your current experience as a writer. 3. your future hopes as a writer. This was my attempt (we'll see in a couple of months if it worked):

Hearing the Call.

This is it. The voice in my head was the loudest it had ever been. In fact, I am not really sure if I had ever heard it before that moment. This is it. It came quickly and with so much clarity; I paused from my performance to look to see if anyone else heard it. I was reading a story aloud to my 5th grade peers. A story I had written. The boys and girls were in rapt silence, a silence broken only by a burst of laughter at my brilliant punch line.

This had never happened before. Did I mention that? I, the awkward incessant talker, loved being around other kids, but never quite found a bridge that connected us. I was neither attractive, nor athletic. I was bright, but that did not do much for my social standing. I tried to make friends, but I could always tell I made others uncomfortable. Maybe I was too loud. Maybe I pointed out our differences too quickly: “Isn’t is strange how much bigger you are than me? I think it’s cool that you could probably throw me pretty far.” But, in this moment, all the students in Miss Frink’s language arts class had their eyes fixed on me with…What was it? Ah, yes, attention and admiration. When I finished, my friends applauded. I got several congratulatory smiles the rest of the day. They were all impressed with my story. I was impressed with my story.

Defining the Call.

Fast-forward twenty-five years: Teaching English to immigrants and refugees in the public school system and, more recently, at the university level, has provided me with ample audiences for my stories. Using humor and personal anecdotes has always been, for me, a successful methodology in creating a safe environment for English Language Learners. They laugh at my clumsy mistakes in life and, in return, they allow me to correct their silly language mishaps. But mostly, my stories permit them the freedom to fall down, get up and try again, a context that engages them in authentic dialogue.

Choosing my undergraduate major was difficult. I was between a fine arts degree and a teaching one. Until recently, I have valued service-oriented work over the creative kind. My life has been filled with adopting cross-racially, serving the poor in third world countries, living in the inner city, and educating and advocating for the marginalized and under-served. I sacrificed any formal pursuit of art in order to answer—what my actions, not my belief system revealed—a “higher calling.”

Years of being a voracious reader, a doubtful believer and an intent observer of others’ lives and cultures, have shown me that communicating honestly and creatively is the highest of callings. Stories that reveal our true condition connect us and help us understand the world around us. The art of storytelling is a means of grace that brings hope. John L’Heureux writes:

A short story is a writer’s way of thinking through experience… Journalism aims at accuracy, but fiction’s aim is truth. The writer distorts reality in the interest of a larger truth.

Whether writing about my neighborhood, Hard Bargain, the first and only African-American owned subdivision in Franklin, Tennessee, or describing being propositioned by a one-armed elderly man, I am called to be honest, and this call is worthy of ordination. Barry Lopez, an award-winning writer and frequent lecturer at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, translates the word for storyteller in the Inuit language as “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” Writing is a sacred work, an industry that gets and gives wisdom.

Answering the Call.

Lately, I have had more time and attention to give to this industry due to my children both attending elementary school. Blogging, writing curriculum for Vanderbilt’s English Language Center and writing a column for a local community online resource have fueled my desire to tell stories. Although I did not begin writing seriously until the summer of 2009, my commitment to communicating truth through storytelling has been chronicled by my joining several local writing groups and my pursuit of writing mentors. I have grown already by exchanging criticism with other writers. But, my stories, like my kids and students, need time in a structured, nurturing and accountable environment.

The MFA program at _______ offers just that environment. I have so much to learn about my craft and I am anxious to glean all I can from the faculty there. The low-residency program meets my unique needs as my husband’s photography business is based in Nashville, Tennessee. I believe that the demands of the MFA program will help me become the writer and storyteller I would like to be, and I am more than ready to meet them.

After earning a degree in creative writing, I hope to be able to write stories that continue to connect me with others in our attempt to understand life. I want a mastery over my art so that my stories are able to convey a piece of the human experience that others will immediately connect with. It’s the reciprocity I hope to achieve between me and the world. We are all experiencing the confusion of human existence, and we need one another to sort it all out. We need mirrors held up in front of ourselves so we can see ourselves clearly. That seeing is true wisdom, and I look forward to a time when my art will create an atmosphere for wisdom reveal itself. Doesn’t that sound divine?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Live a Better Story

The beginning of my pursuit of writing began last year. I started reading a book recommended by a creative writing professor at Vanderbilt called Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. Writing Fiction is a text that walks the reader through the many elements and qualities of a compelling story and provocative writing. Like Donald Miller in his new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, I have gotten excited as I connect the components of what it takes to write a good story to what it takes to LIVE a good story. Story is a theme I am thinking about daily. How do we live out this narrative we experience as life and how does it connect to the larger Meta-Narrative? These questions have reinforced for me anew my hope in the Christian story laid out in the Bible and have pushed me to ask myself how my personal story fits in that larger mystery.

Guided by Donald Miller's latest blog entry, Living a Good Story, An Alternative to New Year's Resolutions, I have decided to apply the elements of writing a good story to living a better story. As outlined in his post, instead of New Years Resolutions, I am going to "think in narrative rather than goals. The goals get met in the journey of the story."

To start, a story begins with a character who wants something enough to endure conflict and suffering to get it.
" order to engage our attention and sympathy, the protagonist must want, and want intensely. The thing that the character wants need not be violent or spectacular; it is the intensity of the wanting that introduces an element of danger."- pg. 33, Burroway.
So, here's question number 1. at the start of 2010: What do I want? Though I have several desires for this year, I think I will only focus on a few to be intense about. :) The "intensity" thing wears me out a bit. I'm not sure how much danger I want. Though, if I look at it that way, I can always avoid danger by choosing several TV shows to really be into this year. I could make sure to catch every episode, sacrificing all that comes in my way. But, I remember quickly, that doesn't make a good story. And who wants to look back at the end of 2010 and say they had a great year keeping up with what happens to Quinn Fabray's baby (not saying that a healthy obsession with the love triangle of Quinn, Finn and Puck is wrong, it just isnt very soul-fulfilling, in the end.)

One of the things I do want is to grow as a writer. I am willing to give up some things: mainly money (MFA programs are no joke). I will battle the fear that I am wasting our families financial resources. (They could be used to send Ellie to camp or get Atticus stellar drum lessons, or even more guilt: to buy Dave professional photography equipment that will grow his business! O the guilt!) I also have to let go of my deeply imbedded bad theology that leads me to believe that "nurturing my creative self" is selfish and, honestly, a bit new-agey. (Yes, I KNOW that God is Creator and by creating I am "imaging" him. But knowing something and believing it are two completely different things altogether!)

Another component that makes a good story, as outlined beautifully by Mr. Miller, is the "climactic scene". Writers know a story always leads to the pivotal scene. All of the action is leading up to that one event.
"They know their entire movie is heading toward that scene where Frodo throws the ring into the fire. And they write the movie to get him there."
That leads to Question #2: What scene am I headed for? What is my climactic scene? I am currently applying for grad schools. Its fairly exhausting work. I had to study for the GRE and suffer the pain of having my intelligence quantified by that stupid left-brain dominated exam (My boss told me to stop ripping the scab off that wound, but clearly I enjoy watching the blood letting!) I also had to write twenty-five pages for a writing sample. I have to still write a critical analysis of a literary work, and so on. However, this IS all headed somewhere: To my first "Writers in Residence" experience! I am applying for low-residency MFA programs that will include 7-10 days on campus going to workshops, writing, dialoguing, and editing my and others' pieces. In effect, I get to spend a whole week taking my creative self seriously! I get to call myself a writer!

I picture myself in a group of the cool kids (or, to be more realistic, a weirdo ecclectic group of socially awkward, potentially introverted, writer-types) discussing the political, social and spiritual problems of the world and then inspiring one another to write about them creatively (all while eating our lunch from a plastic tray from the university's dining hall). The scene includes my sitting underneath a tree on the university lawn writing til my hand falls off, sitting in an auditorium taking extensive notes from a lecture given by one of my favorite writers...Donald Miller, perhaps?

Don advises that, "Once you have that climactic scene in mind, you’ll know the scenes it takes to get there. Also, write this stuff down. Even if you just throw it away, write down what that climactic scene looks like, smells like and feels like. It will get in your brain and like a good protagonist in a great movie, you’ll wake every day knowing what you are supposed to do with your time."

Characters don't want to change. We really don't like it. We fight against it. We sit on our couches and watch too much because we like comfort. Characters in a story need INCITEMENT, something that forces them to change. "An inciting incident is the event in a movie that causes upheaval in the protagonist life. The protagonist, then, naturally seeks to return to stability. And in order to do that, he HAS to solve his new problem. In Taken, Liam Neeson’s daughter is kidnapped and he MUST find her."

Question 3: What will force me to do this? Well, first of all, embarrassment. I have just told the blogging world my goal. If I don't do it, if I flake on my deadlines and don't get into any school, I have to admit it. Bringing people into my story has helped. Melinda Franklin (as previously defined as my Editor) and my other writing partner, Leslie Mitchell, have read my short story, spent time editing it, and care what I do with it. I will let them down if I don't follow through. They will have wasted their time. I do not want to let them down! Telling people my deadlines, for example, is another way to incite me to action. January 15th and March 1. All the schools I am applying to are due around then. Now, see there, I HAVE to turn them in on time because some of you are going to ask me about it. And, again, I do not want to fail you. :)

I will also need to make some extra dough for it to happen, and I think that fits in the "overcoming conflict bit", but I will try to figure out the inciting incident that will force me to make the money to pay for tuition. I'll need more time to think of that one. I'm not really motivated easily there. Any suggestions?

As I continue to pursue being a better writer, and the small hilly obstacles on the horizon get closer, I see that they are not actually hills, but mountains. Maybe Donald Miller's conference in Portland will inspire me! Don directly applies literary concepts and techniques that he has learned at various conferences about how to write a better story to how to life a better life.  Do you wanna go with me?

Check out the conference link here: or watch his video add for his conference:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year's Resolution: Live a Better Story, Part 1

Last year was a good year. I had a few goals: rest and get healthy. We had just moved back from Philadelphia were we had spent the past five years. Dave was in seminary at Westminster, we helped in leadership at a multi-site church plant in the city—Dave led music at 3 of the sites, we led a community group in our home once a week all five years, we lived communally with another family, I taught part-time at the University of Pennsylvania, we had a very active social life with mostly single friends—how I discovered Quizzo and my love for the tequila shots at Xochit, and oh yeah, we adopted our second child, Benjamin Atticus. Honestly, if the only thing on that list was parenting our first child Ellie Susanna, I would need the rest. But, all the activity over the past five years, in the city AND in the North, left me worn thin. I needed to regroup.

Looking back though, I see that in 2009, I lived a fairly good story from where I started. I had a few simple goals and I was able to achieve much more:

1. I ran a half marathon. In the hopes of avoiding medication, I chose to start exercising more. I ran weekly with a running group, I lost zero pounds, and barely finished after my friend who WALKED the damn thing—Laura Benge does have seriously long legs, though—but, I did it. I accomplished something I never would have thought possible. (Here's proof! I'm in the slideshow...You can join them this year to raise money for New Hope Academy like I did.) And I learned that it is okay that I do not enjoy running. It's a blood-type thing. Ask Micah Puncochar. I so do not get O+ people!

2. I had weekly dates with myself. I learned how to be alone. I realized that, in an attempt to outrun my depression, I used relationships and activity to avoid being alone. Once I started listening to my own thoughts and acknowledged that I let my mood determine my choices, I was able to begin enjoying my own company. ( I must point out the antidepressants and therapy were a huge help with this.)

3. I wrote my first short story. Two trips were the catalyst of my story. The first one was San Francisco, where I helped Dave shoot a friend's wedding. On that trip, I was talking to Dave about getting my Master's. I was looking at a program that would further the education I already had, like something in education, cross-cultural relations or community development. But, Dave, in his all discerning wisdom, told me I should not think about it so pragmatically. He said I should spend time studying something that would light my fire. This sent me into a temporary panic. What lights my fire??! It wasn't long after that that I decided to pursue creative writing.

Then there was Mexico. I spent the last few months working on putting that near-death experience into writing. It is to be my writing sample for my grad school application. I am so proud of myself for writing twenty-five pages, editing it several times, sharing it with my "Editor" Melinda Franklin (I have found this year that if you call something by an official name, you actually take yourself and your art more seriously. Melinda encouraged me to start calling my story "my manuscript". It made it sound so much more valuable. Its such a great trick, you should try it. Like, "Oh, sorry. I can't clean the kitchen right now, I am editing my writing." AKA: "I'm spell checking my facebook post." See how great that works?)

So, before I start making my New Year's Resolutions, I had to look back. 2009 started off low but ended high. Its a great place to start. There's a better view from here.

Photos: Yelapa, Mexico; Leslie Mitchell at our "Writer's Retreat"