Sunday, July 14, 2013

Mormon Writing Retreat

Blog, July 2013

Mormon Writers' Retreat

So I need to tell about a retreat I was lucky enough to attend a few weeks ago.

First, let me acknowledge that I am aware of that other retreat—I think it's called Mormon Artist Retreat—that various writers, visual artists, filmmakers, playwrights, etc., have been invited to attend over the past ten years or so. I heard about it, though I get the feeling it's kind of a hush-hush thing. Hmmm—why do I get that feeling? Perhaps because it is by invitation only, and it's difficult to tell what the criteria are for the invitation, other than a measure of proven success "out there" in the world. And I freely confess that as a Mormon writer who gets great joy out of being in conversation with other Mormon writers about what we're doing (my favorite part of AML meetings is the hallway conversations) I have been envious of these invitations, even though I have no idea what goes on at those retreats and I recognize that it's possible that the conversations there wouldn't interest me at all. Maybe I'm just envious because an invitation to it is an acknowledgement that you are Someone, or at least that you have done Something. Whatever.

So, I'm envious of the conversations that I imagine that they're having, or the conversations I would want to be having if I were there. But I know I'm not going to get invited to that thing perhaps ever, and definitely not until I publish a book or something big like that.

Therefore, when I heard that my friend James Goldberg wanted to have his own retreat, I was all over that. Because I know James. Better, he knows me, and knows that my heart is TOTALLY into what he wants to do, which is foster more conversation among people who are writing AS MORMONS IN PARTICULAR. Which, I think, is different from what that other retreat is doing, and much more interesting to me. My friendship with James, or my feeling that I know him perhaps better than I actually do, exists because I feel that he is someone who cares as much as I do about this particular topic. (I met James through AML.) Anyway, I was really excited about his ideas and loved the chance of jumping into this.

So we went up to the cabin. We got there on Thursday afternoon and left mid-day Saturday. There were only six of us, which was a great size for discussions. James has already summed up what happened, and what we participants thought of it all here, so I won't repeat it all. Instead, I'll just tell about three things I gained from the experience.

1. "Oh yeah, THIS is why I'm writing in the first place." It was my interest in Mormon letters that got me writing seriously from the beginning. It's easy to forget this while I'm in school, because school is all about making a splash in the Big World. Write things that are universal. Get published in the lit. mags. And school has been good for me in that way—helping me realize that I CAN address people different from me. I've been expanding my subjects into other aspects of human life than just religion, and that's good for me. I also do really believe that if I can get the specifics right, even of living a Mormon life, and the work is good, it will appeal to a broader audience. But I didn't realize until this retreat how tired I'm getting of trying to please that Great Out There, and how I have lost the original heart of my writing, which was a desire to speak to and about my fellow Mormons. I have a few fans, and they are LDS. I don't write to please them in particular, but when I write to please myself, I naturally please those who are most like me. And that's OK. More than that, it's WORTHWHILE. These are people WORTH WRITING FOR. And the work I care about most is work that I write with them in mind. (As proof: my sense that something was missing when I experienced some success with my YA novel, which my heart WASN'T IN.)

2. "Where've you been all my life?" I have been depriving myself of conversation. I thrive when I can talk about writing with others who care, particularly writing as a Mormon. If it's so helpful, how can I make sure I get more of it in my life? Supposedly, the grad carrels are a good place for this kind of thing at school, but it hasn't been happening for me there. Possibly because of my age difference—even if it doesn't make the younger students less interested in me, it makes me more shy around them. I've got to find a way to get conversations into my life more regularly. Some kind of writers group? I don’t know. I need to work on this.

3. "Write and write and write." I realized in conversation with another friend, Scott Parkin, that one thing that's been missing for me lately is a sense of idea flow. And the last time I really felt it was when I was doing NaNoWriMo. There's something about writing a LOT, regularly, that opens the door to more ideas. While I'm focusing on poetry, I've been missing that flow feeling, because poetry as a genre is so much more stop and start and sit and mull and revise, revise, revise. But when I'm dumping, dumping onto a screen regularly for a longer project (fiction or freewrites or whatever), later in the day when I'm not writing, things come to me. And I need more things coming to me to help me with my poetry. So I've set a goal to do more flow-writing (journaling, blog, fiction, whatever) to open those gates again.

In addition to the insights I gained above, James gave us some great ideas about how to come up with things and bring them into being as artistic pieces. But more than that, I appreciated the model James gave me of some ways to teach creative writing. I look forward to trying to teach creative writing in the upcoming year, and I'm glad I know someone like James to learn from.

I'm grateful to James for recognizing the need in the Mormon community for relationships, and the good that talking together can do. I look forward to seeing what he'll do in the future with this.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

(I'm posting this a little early, so that the Powers That Be can have a heads-up in their planning this year. I don't believe in playing "Guess What's In My Head." Here it is, folks. Make it happen.)

(OK, so it's a picture from December, but it's the most recent one I have.)


No presents. Instead, everyone writes a note to me telling me what I do right as a mother, and what they like about me.

No breakfast in bed. Instead, someone else plans, shops for, cooks and cleans up lunch and dinner so that the kitchen is clean all day. I don't care what we eat—sandwiches, breakfast for dinner, spaghetti. I just don't want to have to think about food at all, the way the rest of you do all the other days of the year: show up, and there's food! And I'd like someone else to do the dishes, promptly, all day.

Absolutely no fighting all day. No unkind words for me to overhear for the whole day long.

All day, I get to do whatever I want. And when I invite someone else to join me (for a walk, or a card game, or a read-aloud), they act delighted and say yes.

That's all.


I don't want you to make me breakfast in bed because I get up an hour before anyone else does, and I like my cereal. However, I would LOVE some crepes later in the morning, if someone wanted to make some. I like them with Nutella.

I would LOVE it if, when I woke up, the house was clean, including bedrooms, and that it stayed clean all day.

I would LOVE it if each boy made some sort of progress on their Eagle/Duty to God during the day, and showed it to me.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

One year down.

Last night I turned in my last paper and portfolio of the year. A few days ago, I attended a defense of a fellow MFA poet and learned what to expect in my own. As a result, I spent a few hours yesterday beginning an outline of the critical readings I encountered this year, which I will make into notecards. This has actually been enjoyable work for me because it has enabled me to begin to make connections between things, to create a sort of conversation in my mind—conversations between the theorists, and conversations between them and myself. It's been a good opportunity to review what I've learned this year, both in terms of my own aesthetic and in terms of craft.

So: what have I learned? How am I different, as a poet and as a person, because of this year's adventure in school?

Well, to answer that thoroughly, I would have to post my two term papers here, which came in at 12 and 20 pages, respectively (they were supposed to come in at 8 and 12; I just can't NOT research thoroughly and put it all in there!). Which brings me to point #1:

1. I work a lot harder than most people on papers.
            I don't know whether this is because I'm older (and scared?), because I’m more organized (getting things done earlier than everyone else), because I'm more thorough, or because I am there at school out of sheer desire and I wanted this more than anyone else. At times, it is irritating to me. (I will be in the grad carrels and hear other students talking, a day or even just a few hours before the deadline, about how they "haven't even started yet.") Then I will see them whip off something that looks pretty darn much like a paper. (Sometimes they don't even make it look like a paper but instead write something "experimental.") I don't, of course, see the grades these last-minute efforts get. But the prodigal-son's-brother in me wants them to SUFFER. Thankfully, that's only a tiny part of me, and the rest of me doesn't care that much because I find the work rewarding, and because these papers, especially, will turn into the critical intro. to my thesis. So what if I work harder when the work is so enjoyable?

2. Putting more recklessness, chance, subconscious leaps into my poetry makes it more intriguing and gives it depth.

            Last semester I encountered Dean Young's Art of Recklessness. That, more than anything else, has influenced my work this year. I still am not where I want to be in terms of playfulness, but I'm improving, and I think my poetry shows it. I’m not sure whether people who have enjoyed my poetry in the past (many of whom don't read other poetry) will still like it, but that shouldn't matter. I've also been influenced by Bill Stafford's philosophy of "Lower your standards"—this has helped me produce some interesting things I never would have tried before, when I was trying to write a great poem every time.

3. But too much recklessness is obnoxious and unkind.

            Here I differ from the aesthetic of some of my classmates, who feel that it's ridiculous to consider audience at all when writing. It's hard not to allow that attitude to mess with my self-esteem (some poets tend to have such a condescending attitude towards those whose aesthetics differ, as if they are constantly patting me on the head—"bless her heart, the poor, earnest thing"). But an interesting session at AWP in Boston with Tony Hoagland helped me see that not everyone who hasn't given up a desire for meaning in their work has lost respect in the world. I'll stick to my guns, even when it makes me look provincial and unsophisticated. I'll write what brings me joy—and that involves, for me, some measure of bringing others joy as well. Which brings me to:

4. There are lots of aesthetics out there.

            There's no one way of defining what makes a poem good. Even among poets reading other poets, tastes vary widely and most of us hate what others of us love, and vice-versa. But the good news is that this means that poets are succeeding at all sorts of things.

5. And I am succeeding. (See my previous post.) At least at something, for someone, I am doing OK.

6.  Specific things:

            Well, one specific way that my work is different (besides the inclusion of more recklessness) is that I've been trying some new forms such as sections and prose poems. I've also been trying more language-generated leaps (as opposed to having a goal for the poem before I begin it). I'm also writing some flash-nonfiction, or turning what used to be poetic impulses into flash-nf impulses, and what used to be too-narrative, autobiographical poems into flash-nf pieces. With success.

7.  The canon.

            I entered the program at a disadvantage since I wasn't an English major (I was humanities with English emphasis) and missed some of the English classes others took, and since it has been so long since I've been in school, and since I have read, comparatively, much less poetry than I should have for a program like this. So I've been getting acquainted with things that other students already know (who are the "Objectivists"? What is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? Why was Charles Simic's Pulitzer such a big deal? etc.). It's nice to finally know what's been going on. I'm still weak in this area, though, and plan on doing more reading over the summer. It'll be fun!

So that's that. It's been a fantastic, soul-wrenching, joyous year at school. I'm so grateful for it. I'm glad to have a break for the summer, to play with my kids and clean out the office. I'll work during the summer on some reading and write a few poems, but it'll be a nice breather. By August I'll be hungry again. I'm so glad I get to go back. I'm so sad that this will end someday. What in the world will I do then?

Friday, April 05, 2013

BYU Contests

I finally feel free to tell you about the BYU contests, because last night was the awards dinner, so I guess it's public news. I've been reluctant to tell anyone because there was no official announcement. I didn't know whether, for example, those who hadn't won had found that out yet. And it would be dang awkward if they were to find out from ME.

And that's sad. It makes it hard for me to have my moment, if you know what I mean. The thing is, the only people who can know what a big deal it is to place in a writing contest are the other writers—and they are the ones who a winner has most likely beat out. So success is a lonely thing, when it comes to writing. Especially poetry, since no one reads the stuff anyway.

So, the news is that I won the following:
            Second place in the Vera Hinckley Mayhew poetry contest.
            Second place in the Hart-Larson poetry contest.
            First place in the Academy of American Poets (BYU chapter) contest.
            First place in the Elsie Carroll essay contest.

I won't make the slightest attempt to disguise the fact that this was a big deal to me.

I think I've said here how hard it is to go to workshop and get trashed, time after time. This semester has been difficult for me in terms of my self-esteem as a writer—and as a teacher. I have been at the point of despair. And, as I mentioned, I had to read at the English Symposium a few weeks ago and was terrified, because the other poets in my session are SO GOOD. Getting the news about the Mayhew the night before the reading enabled me to read with confidence the next day; I see this as tender mercy from God, truly.

I know that it's not that big a deal to anyone else, but I felt that the validation from this enabled me to hold up my head a little in front of my classmates (well, those who know, I guess, since there's been no public announcement) and my professors. Also, it's nice to have something to point to when I fear that people wonder what it is I’m doing at school. But most importantly, it's nice to remind myself that sometimes my work shows a little glimmer of value.

I guess I won't give up after all.

Another thing: the essay contest win was a big deal to me. Because it launched some questioning about genre (I won it with a short essay that had begun it's life as two poems that weren't working well) that led to my idea for my big Paper that's due in two weeks—the paper that is supposed to be the beginning of the critical introduction to my thesis. I see this as another tender mercy, because I had really been at sea about what to write on for my critical intro. I have been blessed.

I know that if you've read this far, you are one of my true supporters. Let me just say here that I am extremely grateful for your support. This writing thing is a lonely endeavor with meager rewards. It's nice to know I have people who care and who are rooting for me. It can make all the difference.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Some poetry for you today:

First, William Carlos Williams, interpreted VERY NICELY by Matthew McFadyen:

And now, "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams," by Kenneth Koch, which you can get at this link (so I don't feel guilty for pasting it here).

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams
Kenneth Koch

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

First year MFA student

Dear Blog,

I'm still alive. I'll skip over all the usual apologies/excuses, because I know you're just darn glad to see me and all is forgiven.

What a crazy week it has been. In the last ten days or so, momentous things have happened in my writing life. No, I didn't get that long-lost-in-the-email letter from the agent who (STILL, after 18 months) has my novel manuscript—the novel I could hardly even remember well enough to paraphrase when someone asked me about it last week. Or anything like that. But still, some big stuff.

First off, I went to AWP. This is the annual conference of the Association of Writing Programs, which was held in Boston this year. BYU kindly provided funding for this trip, thanks to some vigorous advocacy on the part of the Creative Writing faculty, who claimed that since the college funds MA students to go present papers, it should fund MFA students to go feel the vibes at AWP. And they were SO RIGHT. Because at AWP I began to finally feel like I am one of the community. I am a poet. I participate in the conversation (and I'm finally learning what the conversation actually is). What is going on in the world of poetry affects me, and I can affect it, or respond to it.

As I may have expressed here, I have not always (ever?) been solid in my belief that I really am a poet. Having limited success in poetry (and how was I even defining that? I am, after all, a beginner, and yet I've been published quite a bit) and what seemed like more potential for success in other genres, I dithered. But during my time at AWP (and probably because I was so sleep-deprived from staying up late with my perky roommates), long-forgotten memories of my childhood and adolescence came bubbling forth to remind me that yes, poetry was my first love. (I had totally forgotten, for example, that I had laboriously copied several poems into an old journal in high school because I loved them so much. And the snatches of poetry I had memorized from my junior high English teacher's walls—"Come live with me and be my love," etc. And the Carol Lynn Pearson poems I read over and over and over again. In my more "muture" [read "snobby"] years I had looked back on this last fact with embarrassment—of course, I had chosen the less sophisticated Pearson poetry to memorize—but now I am both less embarrassed [there's some good stuff in there!] and also more forgiving because I realized suddenly that the Pearson books where the only books of poetry we had on our shelves so of course they are the ones I memorized. Anyway, the point of this long parenthetical meandering is that I actually ALWAYS LOVED POETRY.) And though I will never confine myself to JUST poetry, I am willing to fully embrace the fact that yes, I am a poet, first and foremost, even when I don't know what the heck I’m doing, even though it will never get me fame or (heaven forbid!) money. I do it. I love it. I want to invest in it.

So, yeah. AWP hit me over the head and set me straight. Also, it was really good. I loved hearing Tony Hoagland argue that there is still a place for "soul" in poetry, and that those who put others down for asserting the opposite should be ashamed. I loved developing my own opinions about the work of the poets I heard and realizing (with the help of Lance, my professor) that my opinions were well-founded and not naïve—or, at least, not too naïve to be worth discussing. I loved being exposed to "new" (to me) poets (hello, Terrance Hays!). One of my favorite sessions was on the work of William Stafford, a poet and writing teacher who advocated a kind of instruction in which teachers never praise or criticize a student's writing. Not sure how I feel about all of his teaching ideas, but I loved his claim that the best thing a writer can do is "Lower your standards." That's my new mantra.

It's funny, because that idea (not exactly the lowering of standards but the importance of proceeding fearlessly or at least courageously in the face of fear) has become a theme for me this year in school. Because I arrived on campus to discover exactly how far I have to go as a poet. A good thing—I never want to feel like I've arrived—but discouraging. You get into a program (hurray! I must be doing OK!) only to encounter Workshopping (yes, a capital W), in which you spend twenty minutes being told in great detail why your work stinks in ways you never even imagined before. So I was discouraged. Then I had a tiny little jolt when I took one of my failed "too-narrative" poems, made it into a paragraph, and showed it to a visiting writer who is the editor for a flash nonfiction magazine—and he praised it highly. Wait! Maybe I’m not a poet after all! Maybe I've been writing flash nonfiction all this time and calling it poetry! So I began to doubt my calling.  That's when I read excerpts from Dean Young's The Art of Recklessness and realized that if I could find a way to trust the process and take more risks, leaps, jumps in my work, that was my path to my next step as a poet. This idea of practicing recklessness, combined with "lower your standards," has unstuck me, and I am excited, rejuvenated. And—for this moment at least—I have pushed fear back into its corner.

So, AWP was good.

It was a crazy week after that, trying to catch up on my work as a teacher (papers to be graded) and as a student (Annotated Bibliography due for my term paper) and my mothering (missed these little guys, and then two of them left again for a week with Grandma in St. George) and my church work. I had a great catch-up lunch with Margaret and Cheri, dear friends from Berkeley days.

But all of this was overshadowed by something terrifying: I was scheduled to read my poetry in the English Symposium on Friday. I've read at readings before, but somehow this was different. Even though it was really just an undergraduate conference, it was a big deal to me because it was my first reading since being in school, and thus my first reading since committing to be a Poet. (Before this, I could always claim that I just dabble.) Also, I was scheduled to read with my two "older sisters"—the two other poets in the MFA program, Emily Ho and Katie Wade Davis, who are in their second year and who are both AMAZING poets, way better than I am (or may ever be). I hadn't volunteered to read but had been asked because they needed a third to round out the panel. I knew it would just be like, "and here's Darlene. Let's tolerate her." (Not that THEY made me feel this way. They are only gracious.) So I was nervous. Very.

But something happened, which I'll tell more about in my next post, the day before the reading. I got an email with some good news about my poetry. And it made ALL the difference. Suddenly, I was confident. Suddenly I felt that maybe someone, somewhere would enjoy what I had brought to share.

So I relaxed and enjoyed the reading, and it went REALLY WELL. People responded, asked me questions. It felt good. My poems are not perfect. They are not as good as Emily's and Katie's. But there is something there. I will keep working.

In other, less happy, news, a friend is moving away. I am sad to see her go. I'm also angry with myself, because she has been in the ward a few years and is a friend, but not as close as I had planned to make her. I have let time get away from me. I am faced again with my own awkwardness about taking friendship to a deeper level. How do people do it? Why am I so bad at it? I don't think she—or a few other women in the ward—knows how much I love her, how I had thought of her as a future very close friend, how I had planned to grow closer over the years. And she is leaving.

Sadder than that was a terrible tragedy in our ward: an 18-month-old baby died this month as a result of aspirating food while laughing. A horrible thing. A bittersweet, tender time. I love being part of a ward, even when it hurts. So many thoughts and prayers for the Carroll family.

And that, plus a lot of interesting stuff regarding life with teenagers, has been my life this past month.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Well, hello there!

No, I didn't drop off the face of the earth.

 Thank my professor, because--get this--it is actually an assignment in my English 610 class to "write 500 words on-line anywhere." I guess that's for the people who haven't had much experience writing on-line (is there anyone like that out there anymore?) who are preparing to teach our last unit in freshman english, which involves using new media of some sort or another. Whatever the reason, the result is that YOU get a blog post from ME! (assuming there's anyone still out there . . . )

 My freshman students tell me that "no one reads blogs anymore." I can't figure out what, other than facebook and twitter and texts, people actually read. How do they get their news? I guess people figure they can see what their friends are doing on facebook more easily than going to everyone's blog. I can't blame them for that; I gave up reading blogs two years ago (yes, even yours, probably). It just took too much time. (And too many of them were about people's kids. Sorry, but unless I visit teach you, I don't really care to see a daily account of what cute thing Junior did.)

 So why did I even bother with a blog if I don't even like to read them?

 I don't really know. I guess I wanted to show I had something to say that WASN'T about my kids but which also didn't have the constraints of an actual Piece of Art. And, ironically, I did find, when I was posting regularly, that my blogging made my writing come more easily. At least when I was writing novels.

 OK, enough of the intro. Here’s an official update, because if you’re still reading this, you are one of my very dearest acquaintances on earth (hi, Dad). Thanks for still caring about me.

 I am IN LOVE WITH SCHOOL. It is just like first love, really. I’m obsessed, ecstatic, unhealthily attached to anything to do with my life at BYU. And also in great terror of the Day It All Ends. Because it will. Agggggh, what will I do then?

 Yeah, I could get an adjunct teaching position so that I can continue teaching freshman English—which I am LOVING, by the way.

 Yeah, I could continue to write.

 But I will miss the feeling of all of it piled together, and all at one particular PLACE, a place that I love. I’ll miss having professors to work hard for. I’ll miss rubbing shoulders with other people who are earnestly working on the same kinds of things I am. I’ll miss the deadlines. I’ll miss the way I feel so justified asking my family to help with the laundry/dinner, etc. because I’ve got homework JUST LIKE THEY DO, so WHY SHOULD I BE STUCK DOING IT?

 Ah, well. I can’t let the fact that it will end spoil my time now. But it’s always there, over the horizon, haunting me.

 My ideal: to be in school for the rest of my life. A close second: to be at BYU for the rest of my life. I don’t think either of these has a great likelihood of coming to pass, though I can dream about getting an adjunct position there, I suppose . . .

 So, anyway. I’m teaching Freshman Comp. I’m taking three grad classes, only one of which really counts as far as my writing goes (“Intro to Grad Study,” “Composition Pedagogy,” and a grad poetry workshop from Lance Larsen). I had a fantastic retreat with the other MFA students at Susan Howe’s cabin near Capitol Reef; it was good for me to get a chance there to just socialize more. I still feel a little strange, being the age of my professors (or even older) rather than my classmates, and I’m trying not to let it make me nervous. I don’t have time for that. I’m just very grateful to be there. Something interesting: I am the only MFA poet who was accepted this year. There were only two the year before. Hmmmm.

 So, we up to 500 words yet? (Just kidding! I’m a kidder!)

 Some things I’ve learned:

 1. I’m a good teacher. Really. Mostly because I’m articulate and I really, really love my students. But also because, as it turns out, I do know a thing or two about writing.

 2. I am not afraid of my poetry workshops, or of my faculty. (It helped that Lance told me he voted for me when I first applied. It was hard thinking I was in his class and maybe he didn’t want me there.)

 3. This is my time to TAKE RISKS in my writing, not write to impress my faculty or classmates.

 4. I don’t care all that much what my classmates think of my work, except insofar as their suggestions help me. I’m really glad to have outgrown the desire to impress.

 5. I still love love love BYU. Always have, always will.

 6. Bronco should have taken Riley out and given Lark a try on Saturday. Really
7. The Provo mountains are still breathtaking.

 8. I am less tired (and eat less) when I have something absorbing to do.

 9. There is nothing in the world like having work to do that you love. How can someone who has experienced that do without it in the future?

 10. I have the World’s Most Supportive Spouse. Period.

 And there, my friends, is my Update Supreme.

 p.s. It’s very weird to think that one of my students could find this blog and read it. If YOU ARE ONE OF MY STUDENTS, QUIT READING THIS AND GO FINISH YOUR PAPER THAT’S DUE ON THURSDAY. Believe me, it could use another revision. Really.