It's been one month since I graduated from Eckerd, and I'm here with an update on what my summer has looked like so far. During Post-College Month One, I've been:
So, this is how I've spent my first month. It hasn't been perfect, of course —admittedly, I haven't written as much as I had hoped to. I haven't gone to the gym. I haven't quite caught my stride yet, but I'm making an effort to cut myself some slack. All in all, I'm proud of what I've done and excited for what's next.
For the past three days, I have spent 13 hours a day in Tampa-- myself and my fellow writing majors at Eckerd were there for AWP 2018, fortunate to be among the thousands of writers in attendance. For those who are unfamiliar with AWP (as I had been, until last year), the acronym stands for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and also works as the title of their annual writers' convention. Due to the 2018 convention's proximity to the Eckerd campus, the Creative Writing faculty were able to secure funding for all graduating CW majors and the staff of Eckerd Review to attend.
Excited to make the most of this gift, I left campus every day before 8:30 a.m. (to make it to the 9 a.m. panels) and returned around 11 p.m., making the long drive back across the Gandy Bridge with dozens of free tote bags tossed in the backseat. Between panels, my peers and I visited the Book Fair, where publishers, literary magazines, and MFA programs had booths stocked with informational flyers and discounted merchandise (I got a copy of Anne Carson's new collection, Bakkhai!). The sheer number of programs and booths was nearly overwhelming; for every hour, there were at least five events taking place that I would have loved to attend. I appreciated the diverse themes of many panels, many of which addressed race, gender, disability, faith, and sexuality in the literary world.
Panels that I was able to attend include:
Additionally, I attended the National Book Critics Circle presentation with Jeffrey Eugenides, Lorrie Moore, and Dana Spiotta, as well as a reading by Mark Doty, Khaled Mattawa, and Layli Long Soldier sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. I was especially excited to hear Lorrie Moore read her work (a hilarious excerpt from a nonfiction essay in her upcoming book); I credit her collection, Birds of America, with reinvigorating my interest in short fiction last semester. Each author had a distinct voice and presence on the stage, and their images floated, larger than life, above us on the mega-screens. I like to believe that, at these readings, I was less star-struck than awe-struck; I think it's important to remember that artists are people, too. But despite my hesitance to idolize these big-name writers, I couldn't help the enthusiasm in my voice when I told my non-writing-major friends about the events: "We saw Lorrie Moore, oh my God."
I was no less impressed, however, by the various smaller panelists' accolades and accomplishments. The range of positions that they occupied in the writing world and their informative, engaging panels reminded me that literary stardom is not the only measure of a meaningful writing career. There's a certain confidence that radiates from people when they live their passions, and AWP was full of that joyous energy.
As I prepare to exit my undergraduate experience, I have been thinking more often about my path and my place as an artist. On the pedestal of my imagination and ambition, I balance a glittering, unstoppable version of myself. She's everything I aspire to be: powerful, poised, thoughtful, kind, thorough, impressive. When I saw the wide stage in Conference Room A and the projector screens lit up with images of my idols, I definitely wondered: how do I get up there? -- In fact, when my friend Ali and I arrived a few hours early to one event, we hopped onto the stage and stood at the podium, pretended to address our future audiences -- I'm not sure where I will end up in five years, ten years, or even next year. But if there's anything I learned at AWP, it's that I can't wait to immerse myself further in reading, to work hard, and to find a place in the writing world.
On February 9th, the Nielsen Center for Visual Arts had its grand opening at Eckerd College. As a senior Visual Arts major, I was given a studio space in the new building, and I am incredibly grateful to be one of the first students to claim such an honor. As graduation draws closer, I have begun spend much of my free time at the studio, taking apart vintage hardcover books in preparation for the opening of my senior thesis show on April 15th. My space is on the second floor with a clear view of Chapel Pond, and I've already made myself at home by covering the walls with ephemera and works-in-progress.
Being present for the grand opening of the new building was a particularly moving experience, not only because it comes just in time for my final semester at Eckerd, but also due to my personal history with the Eckerd art department. When my parents moved to St. Petersburg, I was about five years old; shortly after my father began his career as a professor there, my mother got her undergraduate degree in Visual Arts at Eckerd. When it became clear that I was to follow the same path during my own undergraduate experience, she was eager to speak with me about her favorite professors. She particularly cared for Professor Arthur Skinner; she told me about his constant kindness and encouragment, even when the stress of going to school and raising my siblings and I weighed her down.
During my freshman year at Eckerd, I experienced Prof. Skinner's instruction firsthand, when he taught a mini-workshop on monotype printmaking for freshman recipients of the Artistic Achievement Award; since then, I've had numerous classes with him and have been his Ford Apprentice Scholar for the past two years. Prof. Skinner's compassionate approach to teaching is shared by the entire arts faculty, and I am excited for the department to have a facility that will allow arts to flourish under their guidance.
At the beginning of this semester, I struggled with my senior thesis; in fact, I considered dropping the Visual Art major entirely. It was a turning point in my relationship with art; I wanted to focus on writing and reading. I felt as though my visual art did not communicate my emotional and academic interests, whereas my writing had become a source of healing and excitement. At Professor Skinner's encouragement, however, I continued to think about and work on art throughout the Fall semester.
After a few months of struggling to come up with work that I was passionate about, I found myself returning to modes of art-making that I had neglected since high school: collage and multimedia. I dusted off the ephemera and old books that I had collected for years, and immersed myself in the process of taking apart and putting together scraps of paper and cut-out images. So far, I've shredded books, torn pages from their binding, and painted dozens of covers gold. I've invited my friends to my studio (and bribed them with pizza) to help me create delicate strips of paper, which I plan to use for an installation piece. As the work has progressed, I've begun thinking about the intersections between written and visual art-making, and, finally, I have an clear vision of my thesis.
I am grateful to be one of the first students to work in the new Center for Visual Arts, and I look forward to completing my show. Even though my post-grad plans are to write, read, and teach, this experience (so far) has taught me not to give up on parts of myself just because my focus has shifted elsewhere--exploring many venues of creativity can be unexpectedly rewarding. Especially with a view like this:
All photos in this journal entry belong to Eckerd College.
All that matters is the work.
This academic year, I've made a point to consume more literary media whenever I can: I started reading lit mags on the elliptical, subscribed to Rattle's daily poetry email, and I listen to the Paris Review Podcast when driving my brother, Joel, to school. Despite these steps toward leisurely reading (or listening), it's been a few months since the last time I read a full book that wasn't on a course syllabus --that is, until this weekend.
As noted in my last journal post, I recently participated in a three-day short fiction workshop led by Lan Samantha Chang during Eckerd's Writers in Paradise conference. I read a handful of Chang's short stories when I applied for WIP, but I only got my hands on her most recent novel, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, after the conference ended. I'm so, so glad I did -- but before I explain why, be warned: there will be spoilers as I unpack my responses to this masterful novel about the isolating and sincere life of an artist.
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost follows a talented writer, Roman Morris, who leaves a career in finance to study poetry under a famously influential instructor, Miranda Sturgis. The novel follows Roman through the crest of his career, a painful divorce, and the death of his (once) best friend. Throughout the novel, Roman struggles with anxiety about the quality of his poems; his desire to be "the greatest poet of [his] time" colors his every observation and interaction with the people in his life. Chang's use of close third-person perspective worked incredibly well, in this regard, to show how Roman's internal state -- including his self-image, his relationship with poetry, and his understanding of other characters -- evolved over time, for better or worse.
Particularly, I loved when certain moments from early sections of the novel are presented again, differently, having passed through the distorting lenses of time and memory. It takes Roman decades, for example, to think of his affair with Miranda "with an understanding that he had been, during those six months, very happy." During Part One, however, young Roman seems no less plagued by doubts and loneliness than he does in his later adulthood. Which perspective is to be believed? Was he happy back at the School, or does he think so only after a lifetime of continued dissatisfaction? Readers must reconcile Roman's limited, evolving image of himself (and others) with our image of them, which we piece together panoramically across three sections of the poet's life.
The people who matter the most to us in the end, who teach us the most, are the people who make the worst mistakes with us.
Another interesting moment of retrospection takes place when Roman encounters a past acquaintance and lover by accident, several years later. He wonders "why he had treated her with such dismissiveness" and soon "underst[ands that] he had imagined for himself a future that did not lie with Phebe Platz." Moments like these capture the bittersweet way that humans often arrive at self-knowledge: much later, and with sudden awareness of our past myopia. In my writing classes, I've learned that characters are built on the changes they make (or fail to make) over time; I loved that, in All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, Chang's characters grow (or are unable to grow) in realistic, heartbreaking, and sometimes profoundly relatable ways.
In this scene among others, readers become aware of the expectations (which Roman hadn't known he was setting for himself) that prevented him from connecting with others. One of the central questions of this novel — which Chang called the 'long threads' of narrative, during our workshop — is: "can Roman Morris ever love anyone?" I would argue that he never loved anyone, because love was never part of the future 'he had imagined for himself.' Roman's idea of his future changes over time alongside his self-image; his vision always holds him back, in the end, from being able to love the women who love him.
For example, his intense affair with Miranda was defined by an "essential attachment ... so incomprehensible and so unspoken that he rarely cared to think of it," which rings with the possibility of love; however, Roman is incapable of loving and continuing his involvement with Miranda because she is no longer part of his future. In his mind, "the crux of their attachment [was] that he was the pupil and she the instructor," and that her role had not been that of a longtime love, but rather a gatekeeper to the writing world.
Similarly, his affection for Lucy is limited by his perception of her and her role in his life, as well. When he sees her again for the first time after their graduation, he feels "suddenly that she had been saved for him ... a companion [with] the potential to come with him ... into the future." But if he ever loves her, it is only insofar as she soothes him and preserves his self-esteem. He fixates on a memory of Lucy defending his work once in Miranda's class. He depends on Lucy's comfort and kindness for the duration of their relationship, which falls apart when an emotional chasm finally manifests in their marriage. Lucy tells him: "You never wanted to know anything except that [your work] was wonderful."
Don't you know that for a woman to praise your work is the only way to get you to notice her at all?
Being in such close third-person allows the reader to know Roman's consciousness as intimately as he does, but also provides enough objectivity to doubt his self-awareness. This novel made me acutely aware that knowledge of one's characters' (and one's own!) emotional and perceptual limits is incredibly important, in writing and in life.
On a personal level, I have begun to notice the way my own self-narrative has shaped my professional and emotional trajectory over the past several years; it often felt as if this novel held answers to questions I had only dared to ask in my private journal and with my closest friends. I was so engrossed and transported by Chang's story that I hardly cared when tears filled my eyes while I read this novel (in an earthy, gluten-free, and very crowded coffee shop, of all the places). As a young writer, I saw myself in many of Chang's characters, who each pursued their art differently and for different reasons. Story-by-story, book-by-book, and inspired by Chang's incredible prose, I have begun to approach this lifelong question of how I, myself, ought to pursue a creative life.
I realize that, given the time, I could write any number of journals about this particular novel: how it depicts the malleability of memory, to the tragic inevitability of certain friendships' and relationships' falling apart, to the difference between a true poet and a talented one. There was truly so much to admire, on a craft level and, more generally, on a human level. The margins of my paperback copy are covered in sloppy, urgent exclamation marks, wordlessly punctuating my favorite moments.
However, I must move on to the next book on my shelf. At Chang's suggestion, I've already found a copy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and am excited to continue this exercise of "writing about reading." Until next time!
Note: This post is the first in a series of reflections on novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc. that move me as a reader & inspire me as a writer. Thus, these entries will combine both my personal responses to the works as well as the craft techniques that I hope to learn from.
Last week I participated in Writers in Paradise, the annual writers' conference at Eckerd College. I encountered the conference first during my senior year of high school, when a friend invited me to see author Tim O'Brien read from his novel, The Things They Carried, as part of WIP's evening reading series. I was familiar with Eckerd and had visited often, since my father is an EC professor and runs their International Cinema Series. However, I had never been to a literary event on campus before - I hadn't known about them. Witnessing WIP for the first time in high school was an important moment, because I had recently applied for admission to Eckerd College; although I wasn't sure if it would be the right fit for me, I was glad to learn that Eckerd's Creative Writing program allowed its students to apply to WIP for course credit, and that someday I might return as a participant.
After I entered my Eckerd education (studying Creative Writing and Visual Art) I regularly attended the January WIP readings, but I wasn't able to join the conference as a participant until my senior year. This year, I was lucky enough to be placed in my top choice workshop: the Short Fiction Mini-shop with Lan Samantha Chang, whose short stories I admired. Rather than the typical six days, this workshop spanned three days and contained half the number of participants in other WIP workshops. The small size of our group allowed us to spend over an hour and a half on each participant's submission, and left us additional time to discuss topics from living a writer's life to the importance of pacing in short fiction.
I was impressed by my classmates' and instructor's thorough reading and thoughtful comments, and with the clarity of each participant's distinct written voice. In the end, I learned as much from workshopping the others' drafts as I did from the comments on my own work-in-progress. Additionally, I couldn't help but compare this workshop to the seven writing classes I've taken during my college career. I found the greatest similarity to be the structure: each round began with the author reading an excerpt of their work, then falling silent as peers discussed memorable features of the story, and areas of possible improvement. One difference, however, was Chang's approach to each story; which I could only describe as "both serious and compassionate" whenever I was asked by members of other sections.
After a few days' reflection, I think what I meant by "serious and compassionate" was that, from the beginning of the first round of workshop until the end of the fifth, I got the impression that my work and my peers' work was important. Too often, writers' hands are pinned to our desks by the self-sabotaging question: "is my work worth it?" We worry that no reader will care about the stories and poems we have carefully pieced together. Or, we lose touch with the heart of our stories in an effort to make them technically "perfect," "impressive," or at the least "interesting" to imaginary readers. We forget why we write in the first place, which is -- to borrow a phrase from Russell Banks (who gave an "anti-craft lecture" on the final day of WIP) — to cultivate our capacities for attention and honesty.
Writers in Paradise reminded me why I write, but also gave me direction as I consider what kind of writer and reader I want to be. For example, Chang modeled what it means to be an attentive, enthusiastic, and supportive — but not flattering -- reader of others' work. She reminded me that it's equally important to approach others' stories in workshop as a comrade-in-creative-arms as it is to be a meticulous editor. I will carry this forward, along with the numerous lessons gleaned from the rest of WIP's events and activities, to my upcoming, final (!!!) college workshops.