Moon above the pushki meadow by Dean Sundmark
I rolled into town last night after attending a twelve day creative writing residency. Today I’m wandering around my home taking note of what has changed and what has stayed the same while I’ve been away.
My nemesis plant, locally known as cow parsnip or pushki, the one that left me with burns all over my arms a few days before I left, has grown nearly three feet taller in my absence and is now in its full flowering stage. Looking out my window and seeing how it’s taken over the paths that lead to the chicken coop, the yurt and the garden, overwhelms me. I wish I could take a machete and start hacking away at it, make everything orderly again, but since I have such a strong reaction to the plant’s juices it’s best if I just leave it alone, surrender to its tenacity, maybe even find a way to admire its steadfast ability to reclaim more of the yard each year.
Trying to process all of the conversations, classes, insights and emotions from the residency has me feeling a bit overwhelmed as well. So much happened in such a short amount of time that making sense of it all isn’t an option. Yet I find myself wanting to write something that sums it all up, lines it all out and puts it in tidy, manageable rows.
When I look back on my experience of the residency and the notes that I took over the course of the twelve days, I can see that I was all over the place. I had moments of feeling confident in my writing, followed by languishing self-doubt. The sense of community that comes from being surrounded by like-minded people was palpable at times; so was the stabbing loneliness that I felt at night in my dorm room. At times I was moved to tears. On one occasion I struggled to contain my anger and ultimately ended up leaving part way through a reading.
I’ve always been of the mind that writing is a means for making order out of chaos and I still believe that to be true. But now I’m questioning that tendency within myself to always be looking for a straight way out of a jumbled up world. As a writer I might need to spend more time reveling in the mess. I might need to write all over the place, let the words and ideas take me places that feel overgrown and too big to manage.
It takes courage to dig into questions for which there may be no answers. I might emerge with nothing more than a bunch of burns and bruises. But I feel like being a part of this MFA program is giving me the freedom to go there for a little while. I might not have anything marketable at the end of my three years, but along the way I’ll learn to push myself further than I thought possible.
Creativity seems impossible without a certain amount of surrender. I’m wanting to use these few years to let my writing grow into something bigger than I’ve allowed it to be thus far. I’m wanting to resist the urge to hack it down into tidy little cubes. I’m wanting to get lost in the dishevel. Hopefully in my digging I’ll find what needs to be found. Hopefully it will be good.
Here it is the end of June already and as is common for this time of year, I’m feeling like summer is going by too fast. I haven’t gone camping. I haven’t been in our skiff and worst of all, I haven’t gone to a music festival. It’s been tricky to fit it all in, and although it sounds like I’m complaining I should mention that I’m in week seven of my first fiction workshop class in UAA’s low-residency MFA program and although it’s a lot of work, I’m having a blast. In less than two weeks I’ll go to Anchorage for a 12 day residency and I’m getting giddy with excitement.
I’m looking forward to meeting my cohorts. I’m looking forward to all the reading, discussing and critiquing. I’m looking forward to taking my librarian hat off for two weeks. I’m even looking forward to living in a dorm again for a little while. The last time I lived in one was at the University of Montana in 1988. I was almost twenty then, a couple of years older than everyone else on my floor, so I was the one that everyone turned to when they wanted beer. It will be nice to have hall-mates that are old enough to buy their own alcohol.
So far I’ve enjoyed most aspects of my class. BlackBoard, UAA’s course management system, has taken a while to figure out, but I’m getting it. Our class communicates mostly through a discussion board. It’s tricky though, for me to respond to readings and other peoples’ comments without feeling a little self-conscious. I think of all of these great ways to reply, (at least I think they’re great) but when I end up typing them down they don’t quite match my intentions, so I cut a bunch and end up posting these very shortened versions that just aren’t quite right. Sometimes I wonder if there is a secret discussion board, one that everyone but me can access, and its sole purpose is to respond to my ridiculous posts. I’m not normally a paranoid person, but this could really be going on. Really.
Even in my sleep-deprived, over-stimulated state that seems to come with summer in Alaska, I’m feeling happy and strangely energized. I know it’s because I’m doing what I love. By being an official student I have the perfect excuse to read and write all the time. Well not quite all the time, but a lot more often than I had been before I started the program.
And I’m managing to fit in a few summery things here and there between working full time and graduate school. Today I sat on my deck and got a little sun-burned while I read my classmates’ manuscripts. I also spent an hour or so weeding my garden and while doing so discovered a gardening oxymoron: invasive strawberry plants. It turns out that while I’ve been neglecting my onion sets, the strawberries have taken over.
Speaking of taking over… We have a lot of chickens right now. Although I’ve had laying hens for several years now, we decided to try raising meat chickens. Dean built a chicken tractor and we moved the month old chicks in a few days ago. The idea behind the chicken tractor is that it can be moved around so the chickens always have fresh grass to scratch around in. Chicken watching is a great form of simple entertainment. I highly recommend it.
And since Dean only works part time in the summer, he’s been able to keep things in order at home while I’ve been so busy. Last night I came home to a meal that Dean prepared in his new Dutch oven. (Did I mention that with Adella gone to Sitka Fine Arts Camp it’s just the two of us here for two weeks and the last time that happened was nineteen years ago?) He watched a few Youtube videos to figure out how it’s done and voila, roast chicken to die for. He also learned that contrary to the Youtube videos regarding Dutch Oven cooking, it is possible to prepare and cook a delicious meal without wearing cammo or drinking PBR. He found that it’s alright to substitute tie-dye and red wine. Too much red wine though, can result in a burned picnic table. It’s good that he’s cooking outdoors.
Overall, month one of summer has been pretty great. If I can just add a little bit of old-time music, then I’ll be all set.
I recently discovered that the bachelor’s degree I thought I had earned back in 1999 is incomplete. You see, eleven years ago I was under the influence of raising small children; I was just trying to stay afloat in a world filled with diapers, play-dates and sibling squabbles. It’s not surprising that somewhere during that time frame I missed some important paperwork.
After I finished all of the coursework I needed to complete my BA in Psychology I took my exit exam and never looked back. I went about my life. Besides being a mother, I worked as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and as a skills trainer for the community mental health center before I landed my current position at the Homer Public Library. On each of the resumes I submitted for those jobs I proudly added that I had my bachelor’s degree. But it turns out I was wrong. A certain detail kept it from being official.
I had failed to submit the proper paperwork to the Psychology department when I changed my major from pre-nursing; a little thing, but big enough to throw my bachelor’s degree into a state of limbo for many years. Since I thought I was done it never occurred to me that there was a problem and since I didn’t go through the graduation ceremony I never really thought about the fact that I had never been given a diploma.
I could have blissfully gone through my life never knowing of this problem but about a year ago I decided that I would apply to the University of Alaska MFA program. The advisor at the college, who also happens to be my husband, went through my transcripts and discovered the discrepancy. Enough years have gone by that the Psychology department has different requirements than it used to and in order to actually get my degree I found out I was going to have to enroll again as a student, this time in the correct program, take a couple of classes and reapply for graduation.
At first I was in denial, “Surely they will make an exception for me,” I thought. Much time was spent whining and exchanging emails with registrars and department heads but soon enough I realized that although my case was unique, it didn’t warrant any special treatment. If I wanted to officially graduate then I had to go through the motions. That’s when I got angry. I didn’t want to go back to school and take classes that are irrelevant to where I want to be in my life. For a while I thought about just giving up on the whole MFA idea.
My obstinate attitude started to subside though when I attended the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference last summer and went to a discussion about the pros and cons of getting an MFA. It turns out that there aren’t many cons. If I want to improve as a writer, if I want people to take my writing seriously, then the MFA will only help me. The low-residency program makes it possible for me to work towards the degree and stay at my job. And the real clincher is that my husband (remember him, the academic advisor) works for the UAA system which offers tuition waivers for family members of employees, thus making the whole thing affordable. Really, it’s a no-brainer.
So once again I’m working on my bachelor’s degree. This time though, I’m making sure to follow all the rules. Tomorrow I’m off to my Psychological Statistics class and next week I’ll start Systems and History of Psychology. No, I’m not thrilled about the fact that for the next few months I have to spend so many hours working on courses that are essentially meaningless to me, but I’ve come to a place of acceptance about the whole matter. Really, I have. And who knows, maybe the statistics class will give me lots of new, interesting things to write about. I’ll be sure to let you know if it does.