Decade

The curriculum for the English communication course I taught this semester emphasized regular reflection. After each major assignment, the students had to write about their writing and editing process. The reflections were low-stakes assignments worth only 5 points each, and they were meant to help the students learn the nebulous, elusive concept of progress and continual growth. In a way, the main takeaway of the class was the idea that communication is not just a product, but a process.

As a writer, I know the benefits and enjoy the act of reflecting, perhaps too much. I’ve been journaling since 2009, have been blogging for the majority of this decade, and in some way I feel vindicated when pedagogy texts tout the benefits of such practices. When I explain to my students why these reflections matter, I hope my enthusiasm is contagious (though I know that that’s not exactly always the case).

But the way my students are taught to reflect is not the way I reflect. Their way is better. The reflection prompts give a list of questions that serve as starters. They are told to be specific, to quote directly from their assignments, to provide evidence of their thinking. When I reflect, my sentences are often vague, describe a series of events rather than demonstrate metacognition, and I’m not reflecting on anything in particular, just writing about my day in order to satisfy my craving to put ink on a page.

As I write this blog post, my desk has a copy of The New Yorker open to an essay I want to analyze in preparation for teaching rhetorical analysis to my students next semester. My winter break plans include doing the major assignments that are required of my students so that I’m familiar with the work and questions they may have. The main textbook I’ll be teaching from, Everything’s An Argument, outlines skills I need a refresher on. There’s a reflection prompt after each assignment, which I will also complete so that I can remember the challenges and joys of writing a rhetorical analysis of a David Sedaris essay.

But I have yet to figure out a way to reflect so specifically on everything—on all of life, on this decade.

In the final essay I had workshopped in a Nonfiction class I took this semester, I wrote about the journaling habit I started during my senior year of high school, ten years ago. My areas of concern felt sprawling when I was seventeen, though I imagine that they were actually very tightly circumscribed to immediate topics: friendship drama, the college application process, and whatever pop music sensation I was a fan of at the time.

I say that I imagine what my concerns were at the start of the decade because I don’t yet know; I haven’t really revisited that first notebook. Ever since I started journaling, I have left the last page blank, reserved for ten years after the completion of that notebook. My first ten-year “anniversary” is coming up on January 5th, 2020.

In a way, the 2010’s have been a decade of gathering material, and the next decade will comprise regular reflections where I’ll be confronting concrete evidence of my thinking and learning and living.

I’m not sure what to expect. When I think about the moments that feel personally monumental in the past ten years, I may find them unconsciously (or consciously) minimized in my journals. Or I may find a fixation that I don’t remember, or misremembered. I will feel embarrassed at times, and will definitely feel an occasional frisson of shame at some of my past actions.

The final reflection prompt my students had to answer this past semester had, essentially, three parts: look at who you were at the start of the semester, summarize how you have changed to reach your present moment, and create a plan for continuing your progress in the future. A good reflection has all three parts, and I often find difficulty in balancing all three. I linger in the past (sometimes too much), and I’m happy to meditate on who I am in the present. But who do I want to be? What shame do I want to eliminate, or minimize if I can’t erase it entirely? How do I want to be better than who I am today?

Because that’s the only thing I know for certain about the past, my present, or future: I just want to be better.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Learning how to write, part two

When I wrote this Author Toolbox Blog Hop post back in January, I had just finished submitting the last of my graduate school applications. Once I got my sixth and final confirmation email that my application materials were received, I immediately thought that I would get flat rejections from all six programs. All of the doubts and worries about not getting in anywhere filled the vacuum that writing samples and personal statements had left behind. So I put together a learning plan to improve my skills and be in a better position to get accepted the second time around.

But then in March I got a call from my top choice school, Iowa State University, telling me I was accepted and also offered the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship in Creative Writing. By that point, I had fallen behind on most parts of my plan, but I was still writing regularly. Fast forward to the past few weeks wrapping up loose ends with my job while also saying my goodbyes to New York City and the people in it. I’ve been barely writing at all because of how much I had to get done before moving.

Now, I’m in Ames, nervous and excited and ready as I’ll ever be for this new phase of my writing life.

There are countless articles, blogs, and pro/con lists about the MFA degree and whether or not it’s “worth it.” When I read through some of these things as I was making the decision to apply, the only thing I became certain of was that there’s no one true answer to the MFA question, no hard Yes or No. I had to decide the “worthiness” on my own, and eventually I decided that yes, I wanted to pursue this. For me, my reasons for applying boiled down to:

  • Wanting to throw myself into writing to see how far I could go with it; an MFA environment can give me the time, space, and support to experiment and learn.
  • Wanting to meet more writers like me, who were seeking that same time, space, and support to learn and grow.
  • Wanting to go back to school for a graduate degree; a fully-funded MFA program fit the bill.
  • Wanting a change of scenery; as much as I loved New York, it was getting a little overwhelming.
  • Wanting a way to transition from my current career path to something in publishing, whether as an author or editor; there are obviously many ways to do this, and an MFA program can be one of them.

Classes start next week, and so far (before I’ve even officially started the program) I feel confident that I’ll be fulfilling all of the wants I’ve listed above. Already I’ve met some of the members of my cohort, all of them friendly and fascinating, and Ames is definitely a change of scenery from New York. We’ll see in three years if my feeling is right.

Do you have a degree in creative writing? What do you think of creative writing programs in general?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

Long goodbyes

I have lived in New York City for the past eight years, and come this August I will be moving away to earn an MFA at Iowa State University in Creative Writing and Environment. Though it’s still up in the air whether or not I will return to NYC after I finish the program, I have been saying my goodbyes as if this were for good.

During the past few months since accepting the place at Iowa State, I have been spending some time out of the city for various reasons: a writers’ retreat in California, my brother’s wedding in Indiana, and other, small trips here and there. And during every trip I’ve felt like a rubber band stretched just shy of snapping apart. Coming back to New York felt like relaxing back into my original shape, one that feels as easy as the grid of Manhattan.

On one recent trip, my boyfriend and I visited some of my family in Virginia. My paternal grandmother left for the Philippines a few days ago, so much of my extended family gathered the weekend before she left to say goodbye.

I have a large family, but our interactions and reunions are somewhat infrequent (at least, my interactions and reunions with them are somewhat infrequent), and so I’ve forgotten what family get-togethers are like. The chaos of being in one place, the constant conversations that branch and split and spiderweb across a room. And, of course, the long goodbyes.

As a kid these used to annoy me. After hours spent at a relative’s house, playing with other kids our age, my siblings and I would inevitably ask, “When are we going to go home?” And our parents would answer with a vague, “Soon,” and continue their conversations with the other adults. Even as we made progress toward leaving—moving from the dining room to the living room to the hall closet where we put our shoes and jackets—the time from the initial inquiry to the actual act of leaving felt like hours.

When my boyfriend and I went to Virginia, our goodbyes at the end of the visit weren’t long like this. They were just long enough to convey the message: “Goodbye for now. See you later.”

Maybe I feel some residual aversion to goodbyes because of the way they tended to linger in my family. Since coming to New York, I’ve become the type of person to slip, hopefully unnoticed, out of a party or gathering of any kind, moving on to the next thing, going to the next place. But as I prepare for leaving this city, I find myself taking more scenic routes, prolonging my time with my feet on the pavement. I take it in, counting the steps from home to wherever I am going.

And the packing process for the upcoming move has felt incredibly daunting. I hadn’t really started until this week, and I have this constant panic in the back of my mind that I didn’t actually give myself enough time. Though we don’t have many possessions, there has still been a steady accumulation of things, first from four years of college, then from four years of living in this apartment building. It’s amazing how things get lost in the back of a deep drawer, or fall into the spaces behind bookcases. As I find more and more things I have to say goodbye to, I find that I want more time to say it.