Personal Essays

I wrote this essay intending to use it for my graduate school applications, but it wasn’t quite what the schools were looking for. It turned out to be more of a story. If I was applying to an MFA program I could probably use it. Since I’m not, I’ll post it here. Once I find out if I’m accepted to one of the MA programs I’m applying for I might post the essay I ended up using, for comparison.

The Pieces of a Life

My grandmother has a hoarding problem. It’s not like the TV show where the homeowner is suffocating beneath thirty years of trash and dead cats, but there’s a lot of stuff in her house. And it stands to reason. She’s lived a long, storied life. She is the middle of seven children, born at the start of the Great Depression. Her father was the son of a Lebanese immigrant and business owner, her mother a German orphan who married at fifteen. She grew up on the south side of New Castle, PA. She went to school for nursing. She married, had two sons, traveled a lot, and moved a few times. She lived in Hawaii for twenty-some years before moving back to the area. Eighty-five years of life and thousands of miles of travel resulted in the collection of stuff that surrounds her in every room of her house.

Her hoarding is a source of frustration for my family, but to her each object is a memory manifest, something she can hold as proof of her accomplishments. If you ask her about any one object she has a story ready. I think she sees letting go of her things as getting rid of a piece of her life. She worked hard for them. Why would she give them up? But to me, the stories are more important.

Every week for several years now I pick her up on my day off and take her shopping. I drive and she tells me stories. Most of them I know by memory. There are nursing stories, or tirades about the wrongs people have done to her. I ask at that point what she says about me to others, and I’m blessed with thirty seconds of stony silence. Then she tells me about Hawaii.

Once in a while she comes up with a new story. On rare occasions, a memory floats to the surface, some story I haven’t heard. My ears prick up. I’m at full attention and I listen without interruption.

It’s strange to feel that joy of a new story stemming from my grandma’s personal brand of oral history, yet there’s something significant about it, too. I’ve learned in recent years the value inherent in both telling and hearing stories, and studying the layers within. It’s a deeply human thing; we all do it. From the Bible and Beowulf to weekend recaps around the watercooler, we are storytellers.

I am interested in studying these stories, classics and contemporary, visual and written, fiction and nonfiction, and how they inform and broaden my understanding of the world, and how they intersect with and influence each other. I want to examine how stories are put together, especially those that move me. I want to break them apart, see what works, follow the structure of the narrative, and use that knowledge to inform my writing. I want to find new ways to structure stories, new spins to place on them. I read an article from The Daily Mail that claimed there are only six basic plotlines used in all the stories (novels, movies, TV shows) ever made. Yet writers continue pushing the boundaries of storytelling and creating narratives that feel unique and innovative. So what if the building blocks remain the same? We return to the classics time and again for good reason, because the authors made the stories their own. And we learn from them.

I realized while driving my grandma around and listening to her stories that I have stories of my own to tell. They’re not all personal anecdotes like hers. They hinge on lives and places I’ve made up or co-opted for my own ends, but they have value just the same. And like her stories, they contain pieces of my life. I want to learn from the old stories how to fit those pieces together to make stories of my own. I want to share my stories with others and show what I’ve learned on my journey thus far. I collect stories like my grandmother collects stuff. I have shelves of books, and notebooks full of the seeds of ideas, but I’m lost on structure. I have a clutter of thoughts like her clutter of things, and I don’t want to get buried under it all. I want to learn how to make good use of this skill.

I have one more motivation for pursuing this degree. In all the stories my grandma tells there’s a hint of disappointment. Deep under the bravado and pride, there is dissatisfaction. Her life never turned out the way she planned. When one opportunity closed she picked herself up and adjusted her goals, only to be knocked down again by circumstance or obligation. These missed chances left her with a deeply hurt heart and many regrets. I can feel them running through the stories she tells, even when she doesn’t say it out loud. I know they’re there because I’m a lot like her; we both dwell on the ‘what ifs’ of our lives. And so, my motivation for pursuing a master’s degree is in part selfish. I don’t want to look back on eighty-five years of my life with a heavy heart.

My bachelor’s degree was hard won because I fought myself the whole way. I got that degree because I was expected to go to college and graduate with one. I’m choosing to go back now for better reasons. There are three specifically, and they are mine. First, I have a personal desire to learn more in my chosen field. Second, by learning more I hope to improve myself and my writing. Third, from learning more and developing my skills I hope to make myself more marketable for writing jobs. I have a decent job, but I envision something better in my future. I want to improve my chances of getting a job that uses my talents and creativity, that can become a career, and that I might actually love. Pursuing a master’s in English is my best plan to reach these goals. When I look back from eighty-five I don’t want to see the pieces of my life stacked around me like a fortress against the world. I’d rather see a body of work, ideas I’ve created and put into the world. I want my life to be things I’ve shared, not stuff I’ve hoarded. I want to write my story.

That’s the original version. I shortened it while trying to make it suitable for my graduate applications, but it has the same gist. I may post that sometime to examine approaches to editing. Maybe.


On Winter

Part III

Crows on carrion carry on cawing,

carving out a living on dead things,

flapping black flags on the roadside,

undertakers of the animal kingdom,

leaving white bone and fur bits by

winter highways, ravens on dark wings

weaving shadows over wintered fields.

Corvus corax, common raven,

dark intelligence, inquisitive

sentinels against a snow white world.

Part II & Part I

Oh Hi!

It’s been a week and some change and speaking of change….

I have some news and plans.

Firstly, the next installment of On Winter is posting at the end of the week. I plan on sharing more poetry and fiction in the coming year. 

Next, grad school applications are going slowly but I’m nearly done gathering materials for the two schools I’m most excited about. 

And finally, I’m going to trunk my current WIP because I’m just not experienced enough at this point in my writing journey to do that story justice. I’ll come back to it. This is only a brief farewell, not a goodbye forever. There will be no updates on it during 2018. 

On NaNoWriMo with a full-time job and overtime hours this month…

I am in over my head. I’m fixing up an academic paper to send in with my graduate school applications. I’m trying to keep up with this blog. I’m neck deep in rewrites for NaNoWriMo. This is probably our busiest month at work this year. And i want to write more short stories and poetry.

I need to get organized if I hope to accomplish even a fraction of this list. In the interest of preserving my sanity, my posts this month will be of the poetic variety. I have stuff to do, and precious little time. This idea–a serial poem in parts– has been pinging around in my brain for nearly a year. It’s time to eject it.

Part I is posted.

The rest are on the way.

On Story as a Reflection of Character Action

I have a note card posted by my desk listing the problem/need of each of my three major viewpoint characters. The problem and the need each character has are unique to him or her, but they play off one another. I have this card in a prominent place so that I see it every day. I (literally and figuratively) don’t want to lose sight of my characters’ greatest desires and motivations. 

These are the main desires, and knowing them is crucial to the story I’m writing. I realize they aren’t the only desires that need to be acknowledged and addressed. Recently I purchased Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig, and in reading it, saw that my characters need depth and breadth in their desires and motivations. Which I already knew. Still, it’s helpful to have it spelled out via examples, and by a professional author. And with Damn Fine Story, the focus is on story and not mechanics or plot or beat sheets. I’ve read a fair few books on writing and the writing life. This one is–so far–unique, helpful, and fun. It has a monocle-wearing elk on the cover! This post is not intended as a book plug, however, it did prompt a critical thinking process for me so I thought  it worth mentioning. 

So here I am, looking into the deepest parts of my characters’ souls and asking, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?”

Wait, hold on…

Wrong script. 

Here we go: “What would you do with all that power?” And to follow up, “Why?”

Some of my characters have standard issue fantasy trope magical abilities. [I discussed my struggle to hit on some credible yet original magic system in a previous post.] Some have political power, wealth, or armies backing them up. A few have the strength of personality. Several have nothing but friendships propping them up. 

All of them want things. Peace, security, personal gain, political power. One wants to be rid of his power for personal peace. Others will use their power for personal and political gain, no matter the cost. My job as the author is to tease out the nuances based on the interactions and conflicts that shape them. 

 Now I want to focus on a specific example of how I’m incorporating this idea into my rewrites. 

There’s some popular writing advice that says something like, “Start as late in the story as possible,” and I agree. In trying to follow that advice, I started too late. I left out the entire status quo period for my protagonist, which left out an important episode in his life. That episode turned him onto the path he follows in my story. I stuck it in later as a flashback. Now, I’m not leaning heavily on flashbacks in my story, but this one comes at a pivotal moment for the protagonist–a confession (as recalled by flashback) leads to a change in his attitude toward the events around him– and I’d like to keep it where it is. 
How do I reconcile two scenes related to the same event–the opening chapter and a later flashback–without being repetitive? Point-of-view! and a little narrative sleight of hand. I can show him approaching that moment then cut to his reaction after the moment has passed. Later, the moment itself will be revealed during a vulnerable moment for the protagonist. 

This is only one small tweak with big impact that I’m making as I go through revisions. Rearranging is easy work, the hard part is building or restructuring scenes to bridge the gaps and accommodate changes. My characters are necessitating a lot of changes. It seems that once I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with my characters, they become alive, almost. They push on the narrative. The weaknesses in the plot are obvious as places where the characters are acting, well, out of character. 

I never had a good handle on my plot. Now that I know my characters better, I have a clear grasp of the story I can tell through them. The plot will grow alongside that.

Post-GRE Prepping, Post Haste

I did not give myself a large enough window for the admissions process. Nuts. And bolts. I’m screwed. Actually, it’s not that dire. Two of the schools don’t require all the application materials until mid-January. One requires everything by Dec. 10th. It’s alright. I am calm. I am capable. I am concerned about losing my sanity.

Enough about my ill-scheduled application attempts. I want to discuss some important, but difficult topics. After all, I need a twenty page example of critical writing, and that means I need to refresh a topic I covered during undergrad. I want to synthesize a few topics to show I have a broad background of interests/studies and information to draw from. I did a paper on colonial women writers, one or two on Native American literature, and a few on international/global literary topics (i.e. non-Western writers). I’m quite interested in topics of ethnic divides and immigration, refugees and cultural identity. I’m about to dive into the long literary gulf between Manifest Destiny and modern Israel/Palestine.

God help me.

I want to be fair, and objective, but it’s hard because the issues certainly don’t play by the rules. What I’m going to attempt is a critical analysis of literature created by displaced peoples. Sometimes groups that have experienced hardship and oppression create poignant writings and art. These writings are not a Band-aid for the hurt, but an expression of it, a voice for those without a voice.

This will be a comparative study, with an examination of the history of Native American relations and treatment since European settlers arrived, and what it looks like now after all this time. Then I will take a look at the more recent and ongoing issues between Israel and Palestine. The lens I plan to use to examine these places and issues is that of fiction and poetry, but there will be a lot of historical and critical research supplementing my primary texts and argument.

P. S. My GRE scores were great for Verbal Reasoning, abysmal for Quantitative Reasoning, and meh for Analytical Writing. That does not bode well. At least I nailed one section.