Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Final Process Paper G4/Goddard

The Process
During my first residency I must have heard “trust the process” at least a hundred times. As allusive as that statement seemed to me, it still got me thinking. Trust the process, I thought, I so seldom trust anything. However, during the months to ensue, I began to see the process. At first, I thought why don't these people tell me to simply see the process? After the first semester, and after seeing the process, I thought, well, I should be working the process. There are so many processes to be worked after all, the process of putting each packet in order for deadlines, and within each packet, a process letter. Then there was the process of getting to the residencies, getting a study plan together, the process of all the paperwork, and I suppose, the process of the program as a whole. Meanwhile, there was the process of learning how to work, and a process of thinking about the work. As cliché as it might seem, the process of reflecting on this experience is what's happening as I'm now finishing the program.

The Application Process
It was Juliana Spallholz who first told me about Goddard. We were living in Tucson, Arizona at the time. She had been through the Goddard program and simply told me it was time for me to consider looking into a graduate program. Playing the villain in our conversation I simply asked her what a graduate program did for her. Not a bad question because she was working part time at PIMA community college, part time at the bookstore and part time at the food coop, and still she wasn't making enough money to pay her own bills. She was not unique in the heated impoverished streets of Tucson, none of us were able to pay our bills with one job alone. “What did it do for me?” she asked. “Everything, I can teach, I got to be the editor of Tarpaulin Sky, and it gave me my network. If I was half the writer you are now before I went through the program, I would be twice the writer you'll ever be.”
It was food for thought. Deep down I am still a boy, after all, and I took her words as a challenge, a dare really. How can I be twice the writer? That conversation was in September of 2005.
Trust the process? Tucson was a miserable place, I was in a failing marriage, and all I wanted to do was clear my head of all emotional and intellectual noise, and above all I wanted to go back to Denver where I might make sense of my life.
I first looked at the Goddard website in April of 2006. The six months soul searching after my conversation with Juliana kept me thinking about my work as a writer, and the drive to make good on a her words lead me to begin the application process.
The Dead Mexican and The Mayan, the story I included in my application packet became my albatross. The very idea of spending the amount of time it would take on that piece was baffling to me. How funny I find that statement now, two years later, the creative piece for the application was tough, but so was the personal statement. Even during this first step I was forced to think about my writing and my intentions critically. I figured, even if I don't get accepted into the program, the application was feat in itself.

The Residency
As the first residency neared, the excitement I felt was second to none in my experience. Having read through the student handbook, I was still very curious to find out what it was all about. The thought of Vermont was appealing enough, and when I held the plane ticket in my hand I was still in shock. To that point Vermont for me was as mythical as Atlantis or Brigadoon. Memories of Missus MacIntosh's third grade class crept in, I was force to memorize the capitals, so all I knew about Vermont was the capital, Montpelier. As I looked on my road atlas, I easily found the capital, but try as I might Plainfield was nowhere to be found. The uncertainty of the trip to Goddard, as alluring as it was, became more than just an epic journey to New England.
During that first residency, I found a camaraderie I haven't felt since my early days in 1/1 Calvary during my Army experience. It felt very different when it came down to it, these were people who were eager to begin a new way of thinking, a new way of working, and everyone was excited about the process.
The workshops that stood out for me during that first residency are the workshops I've enjoyed the most of all those I attended throughout the process. Richard Paneck's workshop The horror, the humor, was fantastic. Evan S. Connell's book Mrs. Bridge and Edgar Allen Poe's “The Tell-tale Heart” was an interesting juxtaposition, and after the conversation about each work, I realized I would have to think about the things I read. I would have to think about things from more than just a reader's stand point. I realized as the group in the workshop giggled at the misadventures of poor Mrs. Bridge, that to think about written works as a writer was a skill, and a skill crucial to development of craft.
The most impressive aspect to that first residency, and those to follow was the time in advising groups.

Kyle Bass
I cannot imagine a more fitting match for an advisor than Mr. Kyle Bass. Whereas my classmates told me to trust the process, Kyle's statement was more soothing. “I think you're in the right place,” he said. Kyle's gentle manner was reassuring, and his writing prompts were challenging. During the first group advising session he assigned a small project: three of these four people, a child, a foreigner, an outer space alien or someone suffering memory loss. Then, they had to have an everyday object that they were trying to guess at its purpose. Lastly, this six to seven page piece had to begin in the heat of conflict. The seven page piece I wrote I tried to make entertaining, and of course, I was eager to fulfill the requirements. For me, the impact of that one seven page piece is profound. The characters and conflict I chose for the group advising exercise has developed into my creative thesis.

The packets
That first semester proved challenging to me. No small task, five packets, all on the three week time-line, the very mechanics of it were new to me. Kyle's gentle manner during the residency changed into letters asking very difficult questions, and even more difficult demands. Of the eleven annotations I wrote that first semester, I rewrote eight of them. The first short critical paper, was a “third time's a charm” piece. As frustrating as it was, I realized it was for my own good, even if a bad thought crossed my mind about the once gentle advisor turned Mr. Hyde. Oddly, at the semester's end I wanted to work with Kyle again. Using many of his suggestions, I was delighted by his ability to think on his feet. In early drafts of my creative thesis, he was able to see facets in my writing that needed attention. Mid-semester he made an addendum to my reading list, suggesting William Faulkner's “That Evening Sun” as a lesson in attribution, something that the dialogue in my creative work was lacking. As further consideration in the lesson of dialogue, he suggested Raymond Carver. Using the examples of both of these writers, I believe, I made appropriate changes in my manuscript for a more fluid read.
Kyle's patience was never ending with my creative work. In my second semester working with him, he suggested Frank Conroy's Stop-time as an example for my manuscript. Although Conroy's book was memoir, it gave me such inspiration as I trudged ahead on my work. Working with playwright added an entirely new element for me. Reading David Mamet's American Buffalo, was a treat, mostly because I had never really taken to reading plays before.
The Critical Writing
The critical writing facet to the program was difficult for me during my first year. Indeed, it was difficult for the first three semesters. During this time, I was forced to thinking about things on such fundamental levels it was like being in remedial English class all over again. The standard was set high for me. Of the forty-five annotations I've written during the program, I re-wrote at least a third of them. As frustrating as this was for me, I was eager to improve. Admittedly, there were numerous times I felt disheartened, but the end goal, of course, was to become a better writer. Like the annotations I worked and reworked my critical papers. I wrote all three critical papers under Kyle's tutelage. The short critical papers were laborious for me, I began with too broad of focus, or forced arguments I would be unable to answer. Not only did I have to write these numerous times, but poor Kyle had to read them numerous times. Had the first attempt been as acceptable as the third and fourth drafts, I could have produced more. I see it now as all part of growing up, all part of the process. The difficulties in the critical writing have help me out, even if it was painful. I wonder sometimes if I had endeavored this program years ago, shortly after I graduated college, if the critical writing might have been easier. I graduated with my BA in 1997, I was 25 years old then, and I began the Goddard program ten years later. The three thoughts I have about that are simple enough, my life, experience, and skill. As for the my life, that ten years was a time of fun, frustration; work, travel, that ten years made me who I am today. As I look at the ten years between my graduation at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the beginning of the MFA at Goddard, I would never trade that time for anything. I spent most of that time working, as I think most adults do, and for as busy as my life was in those days, I never stopped writing. The writing of those ten years is summed up in the 100 notebooks I wrote in, thousands of handwritten pages, drafts of novels, short stories, and vignettes. All of the words I wrote there were really for myself, as I wrote in these notebooks, I guess I figured the time would happen sooner or later that I would get serious about writing. It took me ten years. If it took me ten years, I wonder how some of my classmates, some of them being younger than I was before I graduated with my BA have come to seek the program of Goddard. I realize that it is a process, and a personal one at that, but I know that the experiences of life have made the program so much more meaningful to me that it would have several years ago. Experience is a wonderful thing, and it's what makes all of us different. Summing these two elements up in the reflection of the critical writing component, writing is a skill. As with any skill, I know, it takes practice. It is no wonder why the creative aspect of the program was the easier of the two for me, I'd been writing creatively for years. Critical writing, yes, before I began the program, I had let that skill lay fallow for ten years. To avoid the embarrassing feeling of producing substandard critical writing in the future, I should incorporate it into my daily regime.
The last big gift Kyle gave to me was during the spring 2008 residency. I attended one of his workshops, using images to jump-start the creative process. The workshop was packed, even Kyle was surprised. We spent our time looking at images, Edward Hopper paintings, and old photographs, and as we discussed them as a tool for writing, the entire group was energized. During the break, Kyle, knowing I was getting stagnant in my manuscript, merely suggested I should look through some of my old travel snapshots as the writer I am now for inspiration. If the cliché is “a picture is worth a thousand words,” held true his suggestion couldn't hurt. That thousand words turned into close to a hundred pages.
John McManus
I believe I was truly blessed with both advisors. After spending the first year with Kyle I asked his advice on my next advisor. He suggest John McManus. I had not met John during his first residency as an advisor, so I was a little curious about Kyle's suggestion. A quick email to one of John's advisees confirmed what Kyle had suggested. As students choose their advisors, I really believe it should be a well informed decision. Exposure to faculty is easy enough during the residencies. For example, I never considered working with Rebecca Brown, but I haven't missed a single one of her workshops. Being acquainted with the faculty in a workshop is important, and the Goddard program encourages this, but working with an advisor is much more intimate. Doing a little research with other students is rightly recommended. I did my part too, anyone who asks about either Kyle or John will get a very heartfelt and honest answer from me.
During my initial meetings with John, he asked direct questions about my manuscript and my status in the program. In talking to him, I gained a renewed interest in my manuscript, which I desperately needed. Like Kyle, John quickly added to my reading list examples that might help me through any stale feelings I was having.
One aspect I loved during our group advising meetings was the assigning of an annotation during the residency. The spring 2008 he assigned Art Corriveau's Housewrights. It seemed challenging during that residency to read a 225 paged novel and annotate it, but what a great tool that was. I suppose for John, it was a way to gage the critical writing ability of his advisees, but for us it was more important. Knowing what the expectation was for the annotations before leaving Goddard and getting into the thick of semester was valuable. Fortunately, during the fall 2008 residency, John assigned William Gass's “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” A short story is such is a much less daunting task than a novel, although I sometimes find an annotation on a short story a little more challenging. But the Gass piece was meaningful to me because it had been on my reading list for two semesters. It was on my reading list because it was sited in Chapter 7 “Plotting” of John Gardner's book The Art of Fiction, which I had annotated during my second semester.
My correspondence with John was exclusively through the packets. The level of communication was more than adequate. John's response letters were detailed, clearly written, and all suggestions and demands were understood.
The Teaching Practicum
The teaching practicum was the one facet of the program that I simply did not want to do. My intention for pursuing the MFA at Goddard was never to become a teacher of writing. The months leading up to my practicum was filled with anxiety. My intent to be a writer was one thing, and my hesitation to teaching was simply that I didn't want to do it. Now, however, I think it was the most rewarding experience of the entire program.
I lead a series of workshops in the tea room of a local bed and breakfast. The schedule was easy enough, eight two and a half hour workshops on Monday nights January through March of 2008. Even though the workshops were only two and a half hours of the day, I burned up the entire day getting ready for them. I would say for every hour I spent in the workshop the prep time was about five to six hours. I cannot recount the amount of revelations I had during the prep time. And if anything, I gained a new perspective on how to be a student, and more importantly how to be a writer as I was laboring over how to teach. The teaching practicum, wow, what a great opportunity to develop skills: writing, thinking, reading, and speaking. Of the eleven students in my workshops, five of them were at every session, and they are still meeting as a writing group now, six months later. I feel my success was in my planning, and the development of curriculum was an exciting aspect of the practicum for me.
The Creative Manuscript
As I've said, From Color to Ansbach, began as a writing prompt during my first residency. Needless to say, I was engaged in the assignment, so much in fact that close to three hundred pages have developed from that first writing prompt. I suppose there must be some praise here for the effectiveness of writing exercises during the residency.
Admittedly, I enjoy the initial writing exercise the most. As I continued to work on the story during the first semester, I really didn't think it would develop as it has. In fact, I was a little dumbfound as I entered my second semester and the Oma story came with me as it began to take shape into what I would call From Color to Ansbach. My initial thoughts about the program was very different when it came to my creative work. I thought it would be best to write four novels, one a semester and then at the end I could simply pick the best one for submission. I know now how silly a thought that was. Logistically, four novels in four semesters is impossible. But entering my second semester, I was already thinking about starting another project. The idea was almost immediately rejected by Kyle. I think he knew all too well how quickly the program moves, something of a short-sight on my part. Reluctantly, I continued on the project. Although I produced some decent work on the manuscript that second semester, it was material I ultimately rejected. Fortunately, that second semester was so heavy with critical work, the manuscript was secondary.
Once I began working with John McManus things changed. During my first discussion with John, as I described the story, I suddenly had a renewed interest in my manuscript. The challenges I faced going into the final year was to make a shape for the story into a novel. The growth of the manuscript during that third semester is beyond description. At that residency, I was able to make a plan: I knew I was going to take the twenty some “chapters” and mold them into a cohesive story.
As I write these reflection on my creative thesis, it is still a work in progress. There are many smaller opportunities in the story which need attention. Relentless work in the coming weeks will get me to my goal. All in all, I am very pleased with the project, and proud of my growth.

The final semester
The final semester is proving less ambiguous than the former ones. The amount of loose ends is amazing to me. All the smaller items such as the bibliographies, outstanding annotations and even this essay are such a departure from the proceeding work. Going into this semester, I still had eight annotations to write. Eight doesn't seem as menacing as the forty-five I needed initially. However, I always made the goal for writing fifteen each semester. Now, there were only eight. When it comes to planning, I've always had an ardent interest in organization. I wonder sometimes, if this program and the Goddard process is nothing more than planning. I don't believe the work itself is overly difficult to do. It's all a matter of making a plan, sticking with and learning what can be learned along the way. As I developed the plan for the last semester, I took into account these things: the manuscript will take attention when the time comes, and the smaller tasks (the bibliographies, and course equivalents) are new things to me. In fact, as I was planning my time, there was one thing I knew for sure, the annotations. Since the process of annotating books should be old hat by now, I made them the first priority. Knowing that a three hundred page novel takes me about eight hours to read, and the annotation a couple of hours on top of that. I wonder if other students make the same time analysis of the reading like I have. Under this model, if one annotation represents about ten hours of work, I only had eighty hours ahead of me. Choosing to do all the reading and annotations first worked out well for me. Once they were completed, those smaller last semester tasks no longer seemed so menacing. In fact, I found the annotated bibliography an enjoyable project. Pulling the top fifteen sources together really helped me to focus my thinking about the things I had thought about over the course of the program. In a way, it may have been more beneficial to me to have made an annotated bibliography at the end of each semester. I say this because the work load each semester was slightly different. The short critical papers, as well as the long one took up so much thought during the semesters I worked on them. The teaching practicum, likewise, was such a time consumer that the annotations were secondary. If I would have had the thought then, that the annotated bibliography was a focus of thought, I may have done things differently. I imagine a mini annotated bibliography at the end of each semester would have lead me to make different choices for the new reading lists. Nevertheless, this was a task that was a treat to do, even if I saved it for the very end.
Likewise, working over my course equivalents led me to think differently about things. Looking at the work of each semester, and trying to fit it into one page of course descriptions was difficult to do. It was a process akin to working a crossword puzzle of which I have never enjoyed doing. As I was working on this project, I was again forced to think that it may have been more meaningful to me to have done this at the end of every semester. Unlike the annotated bibliography, I knew that course equivalents were asked of me each semester on the SIS page. In Paul's workshop “Preparing for your last semester” I learned that these course equivalents were for the benefit of other institutions who may be inclined to look at transcripts. Again, however, should I have spent the time on the equivalents at the end of each semester, it may have swayed my planning for subsequent semesters.
Future Plans
My future plans have been in the works since the end of the second residency. The fall residency of 2007, I went to a workshop given by visiting editor and agent Betsy Lerner who talked about the dynamics of the publishing industry. Although she was informative about the process as a whole, she said one thing that struck a chord with me. She said, “don't have one novel, have five, then start sending letters.” That one statement was enough for me. Once I got home, I began to think about my life as a writer so much more differently. Thinking deeply about what Betsy Lerner had said about having five novels ready, I started to look through all my old notebooks. As I've said, I spent ten years writing in those silly composition notebooks and had filled nearly a hundred of them. As I looked through them, I discovered a few drafts of novels, and more short stories than I could count. I spent the fall of 2007 reading through old work, and typing the usable material. As mediation, this activity was important. More importantly, it lead me to think about the mode of work I would want to adopt. I thought, if I'm able to read three novels, annotate them, as well as create upwards of 25 pages of fiction every three weeks for school, why can't I continue to keep that pace up with personal projects? If this isn't the act of trusting the process, I don't know what it. Exactly what do I plan to do? When I think about the packet work, I do not think 40 pages is an unreasonable amount of work to get off my desk in a three week time period. The mode of work I'm planning is the direct affect of the Goddard process. If anything more, I gained an understanding of how to work, and how to apply what I read for a better understand of how it fits into my work process. For that realization I will forever be thankful.

In conclusion, as the weeks wane on this last semester, I cannot help but to think about my conversation with Juliana back in October of 2005. If I took her words as a dare, did I make good on the challenge? “If I was half the writer you are now before going to Goddard, I would be twice the writer you'll ever be.” It is difficult to judge if I've become twice the writer. I am, however, on my way.

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