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On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

Published March 4, 2020 by mandileighbean

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.

On music, the muse.

Published October 24, 2019 by mandileighbean

music-thinking

Welcome to another edition of “Typist Thursday”! I need a better title, I know, but for some reason, I’m having a hell of a time updating on Wednesdays. To be honest, I’m having a hell of a time staying on schedule for nearly everything in my life, whether it be working, writing, reading, or exercising. I’m not sure if it’s a bout of depression I have to work through, just being tired, or something else. Maybe it’s just this time of the year? Whatever the reason, one surefire method to help me out of any funk is listening to music.

I listen to music when I do anything and everything: drive, cook, sleep, exercise, and even read. I N E E D music – it is my outlet, my muse, my salvation. I only wish I were musically inclined. I can’t sing a note, I can’t play a note, and I have no real ear for it. But oh, how I love it. I know I’m not the only one who loves music, and I know I’m not the only one who uses it for inspiration.

I H A V E T O listen to music when I write. I just have to. When I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, my first novel, I used specific song lyrics for inspiration which were then featured at the start of every chapter (that list is featured below). And as I move onto other projects, I keep the same system – certain lyrics really inspire a scene or a character or even a type of mood. Here’s what I’m currently listening to as I work on a new manuscript:

  • “Iceman” by Bruce Springsteen

    “my baby was a lover and the world just blew her away//once they tried to steal my heart, beat it right outta my head//but baby they didn’t know that i was born dead.”

    The new manuscript I’m working on (or at least one of them) is greatly inspired by my love for the one, the only, the true hero of the great Garden State, Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been listening to The Boss for almost as long as I’ve been writing, and his voice has been irrevocably and inextricably linked with my own. To pay him homage, I’ve made my protagonist an aging rockstar endeavoring to return his career to its former glory by embarking on a tour comprised of intimate shows in small venues of the beaten path, a sort of grass roots movement to reconnect with his people.

  • “Get Hurt” by Gaslight Anthem

    “and I came to get hurt//might as well do your worst to me, hey hey//have you come here to get hurt?//have you come to take away from me, from me, from me?//might as well do your worst to me.”

    While trying to reconnect with his fans, he gets more than he bargained for when he meets a starry-eyed young woman who asks for his autograph. She’s the only one to do so at the venue, so they talk more than they should about more than they should. And that gets the protagonist into some trouble as he’s married and significantly older.

  • “High Dive” by Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness

    “you dance with your headphones on//and i could watch you all night long//dancing to someone else’s song.”

    The age difference between the aging rock star and his young fan becomes too much for the relationship, and the young fan decides to try a romantic relationship with a young man closer to her own age. This drives the protagonist insane with jealousy. And, just to make things even more interesting, the young man is hiding a dangerous secret that could endanger the lives of everyone involved in the sordid love affair.

  • “The Thing About Things” by Amanda Palmer

    “the thing about things is that they can start meaning things//nobody actually said//and if he couldn’t make something mean something for me//i had to make up what it meant.”

    I’m not entirely sure how this particular set of lyrics inspired me, but OHMAN they resonate with me. I had a failed relationship that I’m still sore from, and I have mementos stashed in the back of a tiny drawer in my writing desk (a deck of playing cards, a hotel room key, a pair of socks) that remind me of when I was happiest, of the possibility of love and romance. I imagine the young fan would hang on to mementos of her fling with the aging rockstar in a similar fashion, which is why despite her new relationship, she can’t quite let go, and that adds to the conflict and the complexity of the narrative.

  • “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” by The Black Keys

    “she’s got the kind of love i need//the kind that’s never good on me//it doesn’t mean a thing to me//it doesn’t mean a thing to me//and it’s about time you see//things ain’t like they used to be.”

    This song reinforces the same ideas as the previous song, but does so from my protagonist’s point of view. I want his relationship with his fan to be somewhat toxic, and even though those involved recognize the relationship as such, they cannot leave the other alone. Personally, I believe we all fall victim to a relationship like that at one point or another- we know the person’s bad for us, but we can’t stay away and even though we’re not necessarily good for the other person either, that person can’t let go.

  • “Unsteady” by X Ambassadors

    “if you love me, don’t let go//if you love me, don’t let go//hold//hold on//hold onto me//’cause i’m a little unsteady//a little unsteady.”

    SPOILER ALERT: There is a death of a major character at the resolution of the story. To get into a somber, pleading mood, I’ll listen to this song. There’s an optimism to the lyrics that is tinged by a desperation that comes from the melody, and that contradiction is powerful. After all, power lies in contradictions for all characters and storylines.

  • “Atlantic City (Cover)” by Ed Sheeran

    “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact//but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

    Another epic by Springsteen that expands upon the idea of love never really dying, just ebbing and flowing because of outsider influences and/or extenuating circumstances.

  • “Kansas City” by The New Basement Tapes

    “and i love you, dear//but just how long//can i keep singing the same old song?”

    Those caught up in the love affair that drives the plot of this story are going to try and fit themselves back into familiar roles, even though that’s no longer possible because of the discoveries made and the decisions made because of those discoveries.

  • “Monster” by Mumford and Sons

    “so fuck your dreams//and don’t you pick at our seams//i’ll turn into a monster for you//if you pay me enough.”

    The aging rockstar’s wife discovers the affair and the decisions she makes based on that information seal the fate of all those involved.

And as promised:
Her Beautiful Monster playlist:

So what do you listen to when you want to be creative? Or when you want to feel brilliant, beautiful, and brave? Share your playlists in the comments!

musicsoulmusic-inspiration2

On remembering your why.

Published October 2, 2019 by mandileighbean

womanwriter

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time will know that I am
A L W A Y S open to signs from the universe. I mean, who doesn’t want validation and reassurance that she is on the right path and making the best decisions, no matter how mystical that validation may be?

I was worried about starting the school year. I knew my professional life would be challenging, but I also knew my personal life was in upheaval. I wondered if I would be lonely, if the feeling of being an outcast would follow me into the school year. Luckily (or as a sign from the universe – you decide), my colleague took it upon herself to start an initiative in the building where groups of teachers engage in fun activities together to improve school climate and to improve building morale. It’s been a success so far and I know that I feel more connected and more supported. I asked for a safety net and the universe delivered from the unlikeliest of places. If you knew this colleague a year ago, and I told you she would be the one to bring the building more together, you would have laughed in my face. It makes me so happy and proud to see her growing and neglecting the negativity so she can focus on what she wants. Thus, it seemed fitting when my group intention was “Remember Your Why.”

I’ve been struggling to “Remember My Why” for writing. I miss the writer I used to be, scribbling every second I could steal, and tirelessly inventing and transcribing scenes. But lately, my writing life has been nonexistent. I’m tired after work, but that’s no excuse. I know I need to make time for what I am most passionate about, for what I love. At home, I sit at my desk, but the words won’t come. I’m just focused on feeling tired and uninspired, which is especially frustrating since not too long ago, I was in Manhattan surrounded by brilliant Irish writers and feeling rejuvenated. I’m desperate to get back to that place, to get back to who I was in so many different facets, and I believe remembering my why is an essential part of that journey.

Earlier today, I grabbed my notebook from that conference I mentioned, and I flipped through the pages. I remembered that Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald had kicked off the weekend with an absolutely wonderful lecture about writing in general and the writer’s life. Part of that dealt with writer’s block, and Professor Fitzgerald emphasized that the demon of self-doubt MUST be banished! She freely admitted that process is cyclical because the demon always returns, but to remember that self-doubt is mundane and that doubts are the least interesting things about anyone because e v e r y o n e has doubts. She encouraged all of us to remind ourselves of our reasons, to be reflective, and to figure out our W H Y. So I’ve been asking myself, what’s my why? Why have I written in the past? Why do I want to keep writing?

And if the self-motivation is lacking, Professor Fitzgerald also encouraged us to find inspiration by constantly reading anything and everything – canonical literature, all sorts of poetry, all sorts of stories. Doing so is a beginning to connecting with the creative self, which is a long, contextualized, complicated, and complex process. It’s important to
S W I T C H  O F F, which I KNOW I need to start doing more of. She told us what none of us really want to hear, that there is NO SUCH THING AS MULTI-TASKING. To that end, I’m planning on starting a pretty serious garden, and I’ve researched more ways to practically embrace a more Bohemian lifestyle in this demanding, technological, modern age.

I’ve been bitter about some recent success of some writer friends of mine, and that’s so messed up. I need to remember Professor Fitzgerald’s words, that writing is collaborative and NOT competitive. It’s important that all writers share with and support one another. There’s room for everyone because I am the O N L Y person who has seen the world the way I see it. I need to tell my stories, whatever they may be, and bask in the “beauty of exuberant imperfection”!

She told us that perfect happiness is when what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about are the same thing.

Professor Fitzgerald knew what she was talking about on SO many levels. She was participating in a research project about why writers write, and she shared that ultimately, there are seven reasons why writers write:

  1. ESSENTIALITY (it’s a need, part of their identity)
  2. WORK (they’re disciplined, committed to a routine)
  3. MAGIC (writing is a kind of enchantment, gives life to dreams)
  4. LIGHT (writing brings comfort, joy, love, safety and sanity)
  5. DARKNESS (writing can safely explore madness, pain, trouble, and struggle)
  6. COMMUNICATION (writing makes sense of the world)
  7. PLAY (writing allows writers to experiment and takes risks)

As I sit here, writing this blog post, I realize I need to discover my why, my reason for writing. Then, and only then, can I really grow and feel better. I need to remember why writing is a large part of my identity.

And then, I need to get started on writing.

ca. 1900 --- Woman Reclining at Desk Next to Typewriter --- Image by © CORBIS

On passive and active voice, and a problem I didn’t know I had.

Published September 25, 2019 by mandileighbean

active-vs-passive-voice

Finally! A timely blog post for Writer Wednesdays! I know this isn’t impressive since I skipped posting last week, but last week was my 31st birthday, and I think that’s a good reason to alter a schedule.

I was successful in my search for beta readers, and I am pleased to announce I’ve already received useful feedback! What’s interesting is that both a beta reader AND a potential publisher mentioned I use the passive voice too much. At first, I was shocked. How did that happen? When did that start happening? Is it because I’ve been reading a lot of European fiction? What’s going on? So I decided to do some research.

According to a potential publisher (who rejected my manuscript because it was written in “7.6%” passive voice), American audiences have been more inclined to purchase books in active as opposed to passive voice. The publisher in question didn’t attach an article or a summary about where exactly the numbers came from, nor did the publisher explain its computations for arriving at the figure 7.6%. But that’s my pride whimpering because one of my beta readers mentioned that the passive voice I used at the beginning of a short story made it confusing. The good news is that the publisher said it would consider the manuscript if I rewrote it in more of an active voice. Deciding my next move, and facilitating my next stage of evolution as a writer, led me to investigate the debate (not that there necessarily is one … but I digress) between passive and active voice.

In active voice, the sentence of the subject performs the action. According to Purdue OWL’s Writing lab, “Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy” (read more here). In such sentences, “The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect)”. So sentences written in passive voice are less clear and less concise than those written in active voice because they need more words to express the action. Purdue OWL elaborates on this problem with passive voice:

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences…. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting.

And I feel like that is a major problem with my prose! I was re-reading (and revising and editing) my new project, and I was thoroughly unimpressed by my opening. It was coldand impersonal to a fault. Oh no! I have lost my writer’s voice!

Then again, choosing passive voice is sometimes an option. “While active voice helps to create clear and direct sentences, sometimes writers find using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice.” But this should only happen in certain writing situations. “The passive voice makes sense when the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.” Passive voice is okay when emphasizing action, but after doing my bit of research, it seems like it’s more trouble than its worth to use passive voice.

1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.

Unnecessary shift in voice:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.
Revised:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
Unnecessary shift in voice:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.
Revised:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.

2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling modifier with passive voice:
To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?)
Revised:
To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.
Dangling modifier with passive voice:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. (Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?)
Revised:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.

3. Don’t trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgment, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

So the question now becomes: how do I fix my problem with passive voice? I realize that using it makes my sentences longer, makes my voice cold and impersonal, and makes my meaning unclear. I think this problem with passive voice started with my second manuscript because I wanted to talk about things that happened before the story technically started, so I wanted to use some kind of past past tense. I got into a bad habit of using passive voice to play with tense, but now it’s time to break the habit.

What writing rules/concepts do you still struggle with? Comment below and let me know, and I can feature a mini-clinic on this blog!

 

On a September to remember (fingers crossed).

Published September 4, 2019 by mandileighbean

life-starts-all-over-again-when-it-gets-crisp-in-the-fall

I know I j u s t updated this blog less than a week ago, but I want to get into the habit of updating weekly. On Wednesdays. Because Wednesdays are for writing. Get it?

And I love starting fresh in September. I became a teacher- in part- because the schedule was so appealing to me. I love feeling like I can start again in the ninth month of the year. That makes me feel like anything is possible.

This September, I’ll be 31 years old. I’m S U P E R excited to say goodbye to 30 (I’ve had a horrible year), but I still have some misgivings about embarking on another trip around the sun. When I bring this up, everyone emphasizes how young I actually am to assuage my fears over getting older. But just how long has “your 30s are your new 20s” been a thing? I’ve been quick to conclude it is a fairly recent development, but now I realize that may only be because I wanted it to be fresh when I turned 30. With one year of my third decade about to be under my belt, I have to ask myself if there is any truth to the clever, little saying, or if it is just a way to help those of us without money or power or fame to feel better about our inescapable mortality.

I’d like to think there’s truth to it, not only because I’m now in my 30s but because as we live, we gain new experiences, which can make us wiser as long as we’re open to that possibility. I get upset because I’m nearly 31 and I’m not married (and not in a relationship, or even close to being in one) and I don’t have kids and I haven’t made it as a writer. And because I understand “Sex and the City” now. Or at least I think I do. It’s hard to tell when Candace Bushnell, the author of the essays that inspired the show, now regrets choosing her Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle over having kids (you can read the article here). And if the gorgeous elegance of Carrie Bradshaw proves to be empty and superficial, what am I doing? In my darkest, loneliest moments, I convince myself that it is too late, that I’ve been living a lie by clinging to an empty promise of grandeur sold to me by the mass media.

But that’s kind of bullshit too, isn’t it? I mean, I’m only 30. I have half a century to live. Have I really missed any shots at anything? Thus why I’m declaring this a SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER! I will not fear turning 31, but I will embrace it by accomplishing a few goals:

  • lose five pounds
  • submit a polished entry to the Owl Canyon Press Hackathon
  • finish revising Moody Blue
  • hold a contest on this blog at the end of the month

What are your goals for September? Are you getting any writing done? What are your thoughts about aging? Comment below and let’s have a conversation.

 

On writing reunions and summer reading.

Published July 18, 2019 by mandileighbean

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The beginning of July has been wonderful. I love the intense, dry heat as it is an excuse to be lazy and spend hours floating in a pool with a book in hand. I’ve had a slowly but surely diminishing pile poolside, and I’ve been nearly perfectly happy. It’s been difficult for me to carve out some time for reading during the school year that’s not dictated by my professional obligations. I’m hoping the I’m instilling reading habits in myself over the next two months or so will spill over into the Fall.

Nora Ephron wrote:

There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a sea-diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I surface from a great book.

It’s been a long time since I’ve joyfully suffered from a literary case of the bends, far too long. I need to rediscover my love of reading and read in the totally immersive way I used to. Like in college. I always try to tell my students that they’ll never have the kind of time they have in college ever again to encourage them to use it wisely and selfishly. I read and read and read. I always had my nose in a book, whether it was for class or for pleasure. And I didn’t care if people thought me lazy. I didn’t feel a pressure to be doing something more constructive. Hell, if I’m being honest, I didn’t feel a pressure to do anything. While it’s true I had less responsibilities and was physically located in an atmosphere very much conducive to my bookworm lifestyle, there was something else at play that’s harder to articulate, a kind of freedom I worry I might never find again.

Anyway, while I was in college, I was reading A LOT of Stephen King. I had gone to see him read once or twice, had forced all my roommates to watch adaptations of his novel, and was head over heels, exclusively reading King. My love affair turned intense during my freshman year. I was living on the sixth floor of an older building on campus with four other young women. Our dorm room was huge; it was two large rooms (one for our beds and one for our desks) and there was a private bathroom through the room with our desks. It was also across from the laundry room and was where all the other Honors students stayed. There were parties and fun, but for the most part, the people I saw on a daily basis had their heads on straight.

I came home after class one day, super excited to continue reading Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. It was engaging and enthralling, and I was hooked. All I wanted to do was lay in bed and read, and I had been looking forward to doing so all day. But when I entered the dorm, I couldn’t find my book. It wasn’t where I had left it, which was where I always left it: on my pillow. When I turned to circle dramatically in despair and disbelief, I found my book in the clutches of my roommate Charlotte. Charlotte was a talented, gorgeous, intelligent, and wonderful young woman, one of the best roommates I had at college. I loved her. But I was pissed she had my book (but not as pissed as I was when she ate my cookie and left a note saying “Sorry, but I needed it,” but I guess that’s a story for another time). When I told her I was in the middle of reading it, she asked to finish the page she was on. I consented, and she placed a bookmark in the book. Charlotte assumed we’d be able to read the same book at the same time. I had my doubts.

But what a wonderful experience. I was ahead of her, so she and I could talk about what we were reading while I did my best not to spoil anything. She used a bookmark and I dog-eared my pages (I’m a monster, I know). When Charlotte had a bad day, I set up a “bool” hunt for her just like the ones that appeared in the book. It was a radical, inclusive way to read to literally share a book with someone, and I cherished every second of it.

Reading, though a solitary activity for the most part, can be an impactful and communal activity (hello, book clubs!) and I feel the same way about writing. Last week, I was able to catch up with elegant, fashionable writers I met a few years ago in St. Augustine, Florida at the Algonkian Writer’s Conference. We talked about our triumphs and tragedies pertaining to writing, and discussed why we keep going despite the disappointments and rejections. It was a much needed afternoon and I cherished every second of it.

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Joanna Elm

Joanna Elm, accomplished author and one of the attendees, chronicled the excursion on her wonderful, absolutely wonderful blog which you can read here.

So, I’ve been reading and I’ve been writing. I’ve sent a finished manuscript to five literary agents and five small presses. I’ve also begun working on entering a few contests.

And I’ve reached out to the University of Limerick and am still gathering all the necessary information to live and study there for a year.

Hope all is well with you, readers. ❤

On adventures, especially the small ones.

Published July 3, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I didn’t write a single entry for the month of June. I had drafts, but I never published a single entry. June was a rough, tough month for me; the end of the school year is always a hectic time, and there were financial and personal woes that kept me distracted, but the adventure – albeit a small one – I was psyching myself up for at the end of the month was a real blessing and a real game changer. Essentially, I’m saying that I’m glad I held off so I could post a love letter to The University of Limerick/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School. It’s been about a year since I left a writing conference brimming with such admiration and inspiration and affection, and I’m excited to tell you all about it.

I attended the conference with a colleague who was my former English teacher and is now a very good friend. We headed into New York City during the later hours of Thursday morning. We checked into our hotel and spruced ourselves up before heading to an exclusive, invitation only reception at the Irish Consulate. I can’t remember feeling as privileged and elegant as I did that night. On the seventeenth floor of an intimidating building on Park Avenue, we were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and wine and the wonderful joviality that seems to be exclusive to the Irish. Ellen and Malachy McCourt were present, relations of the Irish writer Frank McCourt, in whose honor the Summer School was started. Frank McCourt and his book Angela’s Ashes hold very special places in my heart because his book was the very first, and perhaps the only book, I remember my entire family reading. I’m talking my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my aunts, and my uncles, and maybe even some cousins. Discussing that book with my extended family is one of my most cherished literary and familial memories, so to be in that elegant room with windows overlooking Park Avenue and rubbing elbows with the Irish literary scene was surreal.

The school really kicked off on Friday afternoon, where all attending gathered at the Glucksman Ireland House for registration and orientation. We were split up into three seminar groups (A, B, and C) and each group took each Core Workshop. My colleague and I had the good fortune of being in the same group, group C. But before we split up, we all remained in the main lecture room for an introduction that outlined the aims of the weekend, and for a lecture by Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald that included writing exercises and covered self-motivation, plot, structure, and story.

sarah-moore-fitzgerald-407653063 Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald was an incredibly warm, energetic and passionate woman. She was an absolute joy to learn from. She told us all that “There really is no expertise … everyone comes to the blank page” and that blank page is a “real leveler.” The inclusive atmosphere she created was crucial to establishing the camaraderie that gradually built over the weekend between the attendees and the faculty. Her knowledge and encouragement will stay with me for a long time. Her author profile is here, on her publisher’s website.

After Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s lecture, my group and I traveled down a short, creaky staircase for our first Core Workshop: All We Shall Know: Short Stories to Novels, led by Professor Donal Ryan.

donalryan Professor Donal Ryan was just … cool. He put us all at ease with his humor but simultaneously managed to keep us all on our toes with his wit and insight into the creative process. He was honest and open and completely generous. He really drove home the point that the best kind of stories are character driven and beautiful in their simplicity, meaning just tell the story you want to tell. He played songs that captured this idea and pointed out how they did it in just a couple of verses and a chorus. He said, “Infinity is there for us as writers” because anyone can write about absolutely anything, and that can be overwhelming. So the key is to keep it simple: read and write to hone your craft, and to be almost mathematical about plot, pacing, and structure to sort of rein yourself in and not succumb to “the oppression of infinity.” Professor Donal Ryan’s author profile can be found here, on his publisher’s website. And this is a link to a wonderful article about Donal Ryan, which really captures the spirit of his approach to writing.

I was on cloud nine leaving the building after the first day, and things were only made better by having a delicious dinner at “Eataly.” The writer’s life is definitely the life for me, and I am forever indebted to my colleague for bringing this experience to my attention. I feel like a different person, and I feel like a better writer.

Saturday was a full day: we started earlier and ended later. We began again as a large group with Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald discussing plot, the importance of conflict in the plot, and she shared intimate details of her process as a writer of books for young adults. Again, she was passionate and vibrant and full of knowledge. I filled pages and pages of my notebook with notes; amazing.

After the main lecture, my group shuffled over to the second Core Workshop in the seminar room just inside the front door of the house. The workshop was titled Poetry in the House of Prose, and it was led by Dr. Martin Dyar.

M-Dyar-by-Fran-Marshall-1-960x675 Learning from Dr. Martin Dyar was an incredible experience, so much so that I find it difficult to put into words the transformative magic that occurred within the room as he spoke. Before the workshop, we were to read “The Swimmer” by John Cheever and a collection of poems curated by Dr. Dyar. He explored the connection between narrative writing and poetry with examples, and spoke so eloquently about the importance of both and how using them in tandem makes the beauty of the written word and of abstract thought more accessible to the reader. Like Professor Dolan Ryan, he talked about compression and how with writing, and especially with poetry, less is often more. I annotated all over the poem we focused on and was inspired not only as a writer, but as a teacher. His workshop was so important on so many different levels, and it’s always wonderful to talk with brilliant people, and he is absolutely brilliant. Dr. Martin Dyar’s profile and brief biography are featured on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

We broke for a quick lunch. I had ice cream. What an amazing, incredible day! And I was only halfway through it.

After lunch, my group had our final Core Workshop with Dr. Kerry Neville, titled Writing Memoir and Longer Fiction.

kerryneville Dr. Kerry Neville was beautiful and honest and brave and vulnerable, and just an artist in full. She had us write a story about ourselves to introduce ourselves and really demonstrated the magic in a good story and what it can do to create an understanding and a sense of community between people, specifically between an author and her readers. She really emphasized the point that no matter what you write, it’s your job to get it right, to give the story the dignity it deserves. Dr. Kerry Neville also had us bring in important photographs and write a sentence or two about why there were so important to us. I had a picture of my maternal grandparents celebrating St. Patrick’s Day some years ago, and I wrote about the connection between them and Frank McCourt and sharing literary aspirations with my grandfather. I was honored and blessed to have the moment to give credit to Grandpa, who left us far too soon and was always so supportive. I like to think that he would be proud and we would have been incredibly close as I got older. And I owe Dr. Kerry Neville for sharing her knowledge and passion, and for allowing me a platform to do the same. She is a wonderful woman. Dr. Kerry Neville’s website is here.

We ended the day at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, where we were treated to an intimate concert with Pierce Turner.

Pierce-on-puck-fair-counter WOW. What a performance. What an experience. Pierce Turner’s lyrics were poignantly beautiful and incredibly intelligent. As I sat beside an Irish filmmaker, across from a woman who had studied at the University of Limerick for a year, and next to my colleague, I was perfectly in love with my life. It was amazing and wonderful, and I – again! – am struggling to find the right combinations of words to do the magic of the evening any sort of justice. It was actually as close to perfect as I think an evening can get. Pierce Turner’s official website is here. And this is my favorite song that he played that evening.

Sunday was our last day, and it was bittersweet. New York City always exhausts me and while I was excited to unwind at home, I knew I had been a part of something truly great and I would miss it dearly. I miss it right now.

Our last day started with an awesome lecture by Professor Eoin Devereux, called Waltzing Back: The Cranberries’ “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”

eoindevereux The lecture was awesome. Professor Eoin Devereux was passionate and knowledgeable, but managed to make everything so accessible. Professor Joseph O’Connor kept calling him a Renaissance Man, and it’s true; he was a treat to listen to and my only regret is that his lecture wasn’t longer. Professor Eoin Devereux’s impressive faculty page is here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of The Cranberries in my life. When I was a miserable teenager hell bent upon making my mother’s life more miserable than it needed to be, when her and I were at our worst, we could somehow manage to sit together and still share a love of music, particularly that of The Cranberries. My mother introduced me to Dolores O’Riordan’s haunting voice and stunning lyrics, and she played for me her favorite songs.  There’d been several signs from the universe indicating I was right where I was supposed to be, and Professor Eoin Devereux’s informative and entertaining lecture was definitely one of them.

The conference ended at McSorley’s Old Alehouse with a simple brunch. Each of the faculty members read a little something they had prepared and after some merriment muted by the knowledge it was the end, we parted ways. McSorley’s was the perfect establishment for the send off; rich in history and with stories of its own. One of my closest friends in college (whom I named one of my characters after in my novel) worked there for a long time, and her family still owns and operates it. I reached out to her and we reconnected briefly and everything just felt right.

It’d be a horrible, terrible mistake if I didn’t acknowledge Professor Joseph O’Connor, the man who led the way and endeavored to put the whole conference together.

profoconnor His humor and warmth and knowledge set the tone for the whole weekend. He was incredibly gracious and kind, and remarkably talented, and inspiring. Professor Joseph O’Connor’s author website is here.

He spoke about the possibility of studying at the University of Limerick, and encouraged us to reach out to him if we were interested. So I did.

I guess what this whole post has been leading up to is the revelation I came to: I want to study for a year in Ireland. I want to live and write there for a year. And I’ve begun planning to do so.

I’ll keep you updated, as always.

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