Why I Don’t Like Stuck in Love

I took this photo right after residency, during a trip we took to Montana (for book research, of course! And to see lots of our good Montana friends).

I took this photo right after residency, during a trip we took to Montana (for book research, of course! And to see lots of our good Montana friends).

I sat down a few months ago to watch Stuck in Love, which I thought I’d like because it’s about writers and I like romantic comedies. Well. I enjoyed some of the actors’ performances, but one particular aspect of the film made me wish I hadn’t watched it, because I don’t like to get mad.

So what was it? First, the novelist dad in the movie is so successful that he lives in a beautiful, fancy home by the sea. Okay, fine. I’m sure Stephen King and other authors with his type of success have oodles of money with which to live ritzy celebrity lives. But this man has two children: a daughter and a son, both of whom are in their late teens. And the daughter’s first novel has been accepted for publication, maybe because of her dad’s name, maybe not. That smells like lies to me, but it gets worse when we see her champagne-filled book-launching party, and it gets horrid when her book sells well and she looks like she’s on the path to richness and glory, too.

And then, at the end of the book, the seventeen-year-old son writes a story that somehow gets to Stephen King, who calls him and tells him how awesome a writer he is. Gaggy McGaggerton.

This movie makes writing look easy. This movie makes writing look like anyone can sit and write a million-dollar book in a couple afternoons.

I’ve been waking up at 4 a.m. every day this week. I start my day with coffee and three hours of Vermont College of Fine Arts-related work—writing and revising essays; listening to faculty lectures on objective correlative, ways to convey emotion, and exposition, all on the wonderful VCFA database; reading chapters on point of view and exposition in craft books; and revising my experimental (for me) new novel that I’m writing this semester under my advisor’s guidance.

I squeeze a T25 (great workout program, by the way) workout in there, walk Bella and feed her, and eat breakfast, and then I hit the laptop keys for two more hours. I spend those hours revising AND THE BLACKBIRDS MOCK, which I thought was perfect two months ago. But because I workshopped it during my first residency and received another important nudge-and-critique on it, I now see all the ways in which I can improve it. It’s hard to sit down every day and re-think my manuscript yet again, but once I get going, it’s the most absorbing, exhilarating, and rewarding thing I do. I love that I’m learning the art of revision.

After lunch, I read. I’m usually reading three books at a time: ten books every four weeks for VCFA, plus books that I hope help me with my BLACKBIRD revisions, plus a book that I choose for myself. Always a book I choose for myself. This amounts to about five books a week. (I have 47 books on my roll-top desk alone, plus a whole wall-to-floor bookcase full of them.)

After that, I write some more, whether it’s new work for the new novel, BETWEEN PRIMROSE AND FOXTAIL, or more revisions for BLACKBIRD. One of the best things about VCFA is that I have this large, amazing class, and five of them have agreed to critique BLACKBIRD as I revise it in the next few months. This means that I revise a chapter and send it off to them, wait for a response, and then revise again according to the response. I’m also helping them by critiquing their work, so I set aside time for that.

And of course, I have a husband, so I leave my desk to spend time with him before he starts school next week. And I have friends and family to call, and Bella to pet and try to pick up. But I’m this busy and I haven’t even started my job yet—I’ll start part-time work in late September and pray that I can make myself wake up at 3 a.m. so I can work on my writing and leave the house by 7 a.m.

And guess what? I love what I do. I have times where I feel like I write crap. I have times where I know what I’ve written is strong. And every single day, I realize how much I have to learn, and that energizes me more than anything. I used to think that writing wasn’t too hard and that it would make me rich like the characters are in Stuck in Love.

It won’t make me rich. I’m not J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. But it will, and it does, make me say to myself every day, “I love this. I will do this for as long as I am alive.”
I hope that everyone I know and love finds work that makes them say the same thing, even if they have to hold other jobs and wake up hours before the sun in order to do that work and live that dream.

Laura

The First Residency

College Hall, where many of our lectures take place.

College Hall, where many of our lectures take place.

This morning, at the final VCFA MFA in WCYA faculty lecture, Tom Birdseye named the two factors that push a person to write: a plan and a deadline. And it’s true. These last almost-two weeks have filled me with information, inspiration, and determination. I have finally experienced my first MFA residency and never cried once, not even on linen day. I’m proud of that, because if I were going to cry at any point in the residency it would have happened after my piece, the first twenty-five pages of AND THE BLACKBIRDS MOCK, was workshopped several days ago.

It’s not that anyone was unkind. My workshop leaders, Martine Leavitt and Shelley Tanaka, are kind, wonderful women who lead thorough and lively workshops. Martine told us on the first of six two-hour workshop sessions that seeing what DOES work in a peer’s piece is just as important as seeing what doesn’t. My lovely workshop group and leaders found issues and strengths in BLACKBIRD that I never saw, and I am so grateful for that. I’m also grateful that, in the end, I the writer choose what to keep and what to let fall to the grass.

So I didn’t cry, but today I came close when I realized that I’m saying goodbye to this exhilarating place for six months. The VCFA class of July 2014 receive their diplomas in an hour. Our last workshop happened this morning, and in it Martine gave us a washer tied to a string and told us to focus on it, to will it to move back and forth, side to side, in a circle. I’m not sure how—an optical illusion? The pulse moving through the thumb? Willpower?—but mine did what I willed it to do.

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When we were finished staring at our little washers-on-a-string, Martine told us that early in her writing life, someone told her to always remember that she is a writer. She told us the same thing: we are writers. I, Laura, am a writer, and if I focus on that truth when I feel my most inadequate, I will write.

Shelley told us that she, like Martine, does the washer-on-a-string exercise sometimes to remind herself that she is a writer, and therein lies the beautiful essence of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults: the faculty, all published and successful authors, struggle like we do with writing though their writer’s toolboxes are heavier than ours. They fight distractions and emotions and push through criticism and emerge alive on the other side. They are people—thoughtful, caring, and brilliant people who never stop encouraging their students.

As I embark on my first six months of graduate school with a semester plan and five deadlines, a bunch of half-formed tools in my toolbox, and thirty-odd new writer friends to laugh and cry with, I will dangle the string from my thumb and first finger and tell myself the everlasting truth: I am writer, no matter what.

The first two books for my first packet bibliography. The one on the left is by a VCFA alum!

The first two of ten books: I’m reading these tonight and all the way home tomorrow for my first packet bibliography. The one on the left is by a VCFA alum!

Laura

P.S. Because of that plan and those deadlines, I won’t be able to write on this blog as much as I would like to. You may have noticed that already. I plan to post once a month, if not more often, so please stay with me, and thank you for reading!

And here are some photos from my time here in Vermont:

Found these while on a run yesterday morning.

Found these while on a run yesterday morning.

Another scene from that same trail run.

Another scene from that same trail run.

Green beauty.

Green beauty.

 

What Have I Been Doing?

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(Above: books by VCFA faculty advisors.)

My poor blog. How I have neglected you! I am whipping through my last two weeks of ‘summer vacation,’ though it’s an atypical vacation because it started in March and ends on July 7 (which happens to be my husband’s and my first anniversary. I’ll be on the other side of America. I’m sad about that part of my new adventure).

What has gobbled my hours so much that I haven’t found time to blog? The answer lurks in many of my posts: I’ve been reading. But not just any books. I’ve been reading books by my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I want to read at least one book by each faculty member. That’s a total of 21 books.

Here are the ones I’ve read so far:

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher

Hanging on to Max by Margaret Bechard

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (one of my two first workshop leaders)

And I’m almost done with Tyrell by Coe Booth

Each is splendid in its own wildly different way. These writers, these advisors, stun me with their talent, and I am honored to have the opportunity to work with them these next two years. I purchased another Martine Leavitt book, as well as another Susan Fletcher book, and another A.S. King book and another Kathi Appelt book because I couldn’t find them at the library and I just HAVE to read more of what they’ve written. Today I’m going to the library to get the sequel to One Crazy Summer and a handful of books by other faculty members whose works I have yet to enjoy.

Does reading this many books count as being too busy to write? For me, yes. I’ve also been doing regular-life things, like spend time with my husband, clean the house, play with Bella, cook, exercise, have an awesome graduation weekend with family and friends, and more. And in all this reading and cleaning and laughing, I’ve been taking notes on the two different stories my imagination works on every day, because writing does not take place merely on a word processor: it takes place in the mind first. I thought about And the Blackbirds Mock for a year before I wrote it this past winter. Every writer is different, but that’s how writing works for me.

I urge you to read the books listed above. If you’ve never read Young Adult or Middle Grade books, start with these. They suck you in and amaze you with their talent and creativity and humanity. I’d also love to hear from you–what are you reading? I’m always looking for more books to add to my endless to-read list.

Laura

Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant at Not (So) Small Stories. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/06/24/small-stories-fourteenth-edition/

Vienna Waited

I couldn't find a picture of me in Vienna in my iPhoto (I switched laptops since then so they're on a hard drive somewhere), so this is me near Salzburg. Still Austria!

I couldn’t find a picture of me in Vienna in my iPhoto (I switched laptops since then so they’re on a hard drive somewhere), so this is me near Salzburg. Still Austria!

When Billy Joel’s “Vienna” started to play on my square blue iPod nano, the mountains in front of me blurred. I was riding my mother’s road bike to my summer job at Burger King, and the air in the seven-mile stretch of Frontage Road I had to conquer before arriving on Bozeman’s main street brimmed with loneliness.

I faced eight hours of nodding as customers said with smug, clipped voices, “I need two Mocha Joes, three Whoppers, six large french fries…and I need a vanilla shake, as well. Oh, and I’m going to need six Cokes…” (Who really needs any of those things?) and eight hours of “Stop roaring into the drive-thru microphone. The manager’s going to catch you one of these times,” and eight hours of “Time to stock sauces, guys. And clean bathrooms. And wipe tables and sweep lobbies and sponge trays.”

I hated all of it, except roaring at innocent burger-buyers who came through the drive thru, listening to their bewildered reactions, and acting like I had no idea what “that weird sound was.” But my job wasn’t what made tears leak from my eyes.

I was in love with a boy who did not love me back. And I was fifteen years old. As Frontage Road dashed under the bike’s skinny tires, I began to sing with Billy Joel.

“Slow down, you crazy child. You’re so ambitious for a juvenile. But if you’re so smart, tell me–why are you still so afraid?”

The tears rolled faster now.

“Slow down, you’re doing fine. You can’t be everything you want to be before your time, although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight, tonight.”

A great bubbling gurgle rolled from my wounded soul to my throat.

“You got your passion, you got your pride. But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied? Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true. When will you realize…Vienna waits for you?”

A bellow split the birdsong as the tears became sobs. So alone in my world of woe was I that I cared not whether people heard me. “Vienna will never wait for me,” I whispered after the song ended.

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Four years later, I stood in the middle of a street in Vienna, Austria, and watched a string quintet play a thrumming classical song whose name I do not know. My traveling group and I had just enjoyed sachertorte (chocolate sponge cake, apricot jam, and chocolate icing) and coffee at an old Vienna coffee house. We were spending the evening wandering the streets, gazing at cathedrals and darting into glass shops and souvenir spots. As the cello and violin music gripped me and spun me about, I thought about Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” and, without embarrassment now that I was far from fifteen years old, remembered my weepy bike ride to Burger King.

The real Vienna had waited, after all. And though I was finally in Europe for the first time and had realized many dreams since that day on the road bike, I didn’t know what the rest of my dreams were, or if they would ever happen once I figured them out. I did not feel like Vienna had waited.

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Two years later, I sat at my computer and talked to a customer service agent from the Edison electrical company. I’d spent my morning calling the city to transfer water, sewer, and trash services from our landlady’s name to mine and my husband’s, figuring out how to get our dog, Bella, licensed to live in the town, arranging for a plumber to come unclog the sink, and learning how to get street parking permits for our cars.

The lady put me on hold, and I sat in the mess of paperwork and thought about how life had changed in the past year. I got married to that boy who had once not loved me back, finished school, got accepted to a school I hadn’t known was my dream school until I was rejected by what I thought were my dream schools, a school that would give me the community, environment, and instruction necessary for me to live my dream.

I—we—moved to a home with a yard, a home where our neighbors stop to chat with us, welcome us to the neighborhood, comment on Bella’s calmness and beauty. I thought about the support we had from our parents and was thankful mine had come for a writer’s retreat in a town an hour away only to do both that AND help us move all our furniture and unpack most of our boxes.

And gratitude rolled from my soul to my throat the way the tears of sorrow and anger had six years before.

“Vienna waited,” I said as the lady’s voice came back on the line.

 

Laura

 

 

A Rambling Recap of the Last Week and a Half

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Two Fridays ago, Nickel Creek’s music soared through my ear buds’ wires as I knelt on the carpet to polish the small wood table perched in between our recliners. I tried not to think about my hazy future, about the way neither Louis nor I knew if we’d been accepted to grad school and it was already almost May. And then my iPhone stopped playing Nickel Creek and started jangling its regular ringtone. Montpelier, Vermont, read the screen. Ice trickled into my legs. I frantically clicked the answer button and fumbled with the earphones.

“Hello? Hello? I’m sorry, I was cleaning my house and I have earphones in because I was listening to music…can you hear me?”

A woman’s voice. “Yes, I can hear you, that’s fine.”

“Okay. Hi, this is Laura,” I said, my heart galloping against my ribs.

“Hi Laura, this is the program director from the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.”

 

MFA programs don’t call a person to tell them they’ve been rejected. When the program director told me the faculty enjoyed my manuscript and essays and that they were pleased to accept me into the program, I very unsophisticatedly squealed into the phone. I had applied to the program, a low-residency MFA, on a last-minute intuition two days before the deadline, which meant I’d had to write a personal essay and a critical essay in one weekend—and I rarely do things last-minute, so I did my best and hoped it would be enough but knew it probably wouldn’t be. I was rejected to six programs in creative writing MFAs, which I now see I should not have applied to anyway. I write fiction middle grade and young adult literature, though I love penning nonfiction essays as well. The program at VCFA fits me perfectly, and my first residency is in July.

That same day, my husband and I learned we needed to move to Loma Linda, California, and that we’d be living there for at least two years, if not longer. Thus began the search for somewhere to live, and we had specifications: reasonable rent, a yard for my German Shepherd dog, Bella, who has lived with my parents since I left for college, and, if we could make it happen, a few more square feet of space. For three days, we found nothing. Condos and apartment complexes and mobile homes and regular home rentals are afraid of dogs who don’t spend their days yapping through houses, riding in handbags, or licking their owners’ faces. They are afraid, especially, of German Shepherds. Bella is calm, well trained, and good with people, but she is also cautious and protective.

Just when I lost hope of ever getting to have my own dog live with us and be our first baby, I found a landlord who loved German Shepherds and whose home had a gated yard. The rent was reasonable, there was a one-car garage, two bathrooms and bedrooms, and…glory of glories…a dishwasher. And this sweet woman offered to install a washer and dryer in the laundry room for us. We jumped on this God-sent opportunity and packed our things the next day (Wednesday of last week). We moved all of the packed boxes on Thursday, and my parents arrived on Thursday night because, a few months ago, my mom and I signed up for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) SoCal Chapter Retreat at a vineyard resort in Temecula, and it happened this weekend.

On Friday, my mom and I unpacked boxes and shopped for house decorations. My mom has the perfect eye for tasteful decorations, and we found this wonderful shelf at Target to make up for the kitchen’s lack of storage space.

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My dad and Louis took a U-Haul to the cottage and loaded our furniture and brought it to our new home, and after helping them arrange most of it my mom and I took quick showers and headed to the first day of our writer’s retreat, during which we got to eat refreshments and chat with editors from Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Farrar Straus Giroux. The next day we participated in roundtable sessions with the editors (editors from Henry Holt and Greenwillow HarperCollins also came to the event), listened to Lin Oliver (SCBWI’s co-founder and executive director) share her wisdom on writing for middle grade readers, had a lovely mother-daughter lunch at the Vineyard Rose Restaurant, absorbed editor talks on how to improve our work, and so much more.

We commuted an hour from Loma Linda to Temecula for each day of the retreat, and shortly after we returned home from the second day, our kitchen sink clogged and Bella got herself sprayed by a skunk. These two events happened almost simultaneously. And since it was dark and the skunk smell smelled really weird and un-skunky for a little while, I put my hand right on Bella’s damp face and smelled my hand, which smelled like mashed vegetation mixed with skunk. I probably held skunk liquid right in my own face, because today we’re pretty sure it was a skunk. We had no hydrogen peroxide and were ready for bed, so I rinsed her with baking soda and shampoo and water and hoped for the best.

The next day my mom and I attended the retreat’s last day, and we arrived at the vineyards early enough to stroll, enjoy the hot air balloons hovering over the rows of vines, and take a ‘vineyard selfie.’

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We said goodbye to the wonderful writers and editors and event hosts at noon and promised ourselves we would return next year, and then we met our men at an Indian restaurant for lunch. Now my mom’s on her way to pick up my Chinese sister Wendy from the airport (she was a foreign-exchange student a few years ago, but she’s family to us), and my dad’s staying here until Tuesday. He and Louis are getting Louis’s new lawn-care equipment set up, and other things are falling into place: the washer and dryer come next week, the Internet people arrive on Tuesday, the landlady’s calling the plumber about the sink tomorrow, and I bought hydrogen peroxide and washed my stinker with it, baking soda, and dish soap. I pretended we were just playing with the hose, but she thinks I spent too much time just scrubbing her skin. She’s ignoring me in this picture and pining for the world beyond the little black barrier (a.k.a. skunkland).

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My life has become busy again, a different, delightfully tiring busy. I go to Arizona this week to see Wendy and more of my mom (yay!) and get to hang out with my dad on the drive there. I’m glad I came to accept the slow, unsure pace of life that came before this, because now the madness is marching right along with me on its back, and I love it. I love it. I’m grateful for my husband and parents, because together the four of us have made moving quick and almost easy. I’m thankful everything has fallen into place—it won’t always be this way, and I am going to enjoy every moment.

 

Laura