Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I realized something today--this may be the only reason I am applying to Grad School.

I'm working on my portfolio, with about 3-4 serious stories in the works. I need revision and critique and outside help like crazy, so I'm allowing anyone who is willing to step into my world to read a story or two. I know I need it, but it's the scariest thing I've ever done. I didn't feel this way so much in college, strangely. Maybe it's because there my classmates didn't know me before they knew my writer self. Maybe it's cause I feel like now I'm just swimming out there amongst thousands of people much more talented than I am, and I'm not in a safe little classroom of fellow vulnerable writers. Maybe it's because the stakes are higher now.

This is what I realized: If anything, this process of writing is a process of humility. I'm the type of writer who picks up a story I finished 4 years ago--a story that won awards and served as my senior project--and scowls and wants to revise it all over the place. I'm so self-editing that the minute I recruit someone to enter my writings, I'm immediately more self-conscious. I have to let people into a raw, unrefined, evolving part of my imagination that no one else ever sees. After I send a piece and keep editing, I'm almost ashamed at the vulgarity of the former draft. It's very humbling. Like telling a perfect stranger your most twisted, bizarre dreams. Like your mom telling your new girlfriend you used to wet the bed. Like having your suitcase fall open at the airport and everyone seeing your underwear.

Of course it's all delusion. What am I afraid of falling from in my readers' eyes? I am and will always be Sarah. I try not to be a different person to different people. I think I'm still learning what this humility of writing is going to be about.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Behind the Seen

If I've seemed distant in the past few months, it's because I'm realigning my priorities. Namely, am I going to apply to MFA programs, or not? I took the GRE in September, but that is such a minor factor in the application process--only one school out of the seven I'm applying to even asks for it. The bigger issue for me is writing, building a portfolio. The only completed story I have is what I wrote for my senior paper in 2005. It takes something more than once-a-month flashes of experimental writing to make a portfolio. And here's where my shift came in.

To me, writing is first about observing well, about seeing beneath the surface in people, places, and events. It is about seeing what can't be shown visually. My life consisted of a lot of "to-do's" and what little free time I had was spent in front of the TV or computer. If there's anything redeeming about that, it's that I used that time to observe and think about the stories and people I saw there. But it doesn't translate into written word--the stuff beneath the visual. I had stacks of books I wanted to someday read, and what I was reading wasn't anything I could study for the form and craft of my own persuasion. I needed to drastically cut away from the need to detox on my favorite shows, check email and facebook every day, (as well as the pressure to keep up my blog), and tune in to a book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, or Flannery O'Connor, or a blend of contemporary American short stories.

Also, I needed to reformat my social self. As a child I was more withdrawn, more sideline-ish, more observant, but somewhere along the line was told that that wasn't good enough. I should be more conversational, more entertaining, more in-the-moment. I don't regret coming out of my shell a bit, but I see in retrospect where that killed some of the imagination that was born from longer incubation. I lack memories from most of my formative years. Former middle- and high-school classmates recall pronoun songs we learned in English class or who got in trouble for what in 7th grade, and I smile thinking "Where was I?" I know I was there, but I wasn't taking it in; I was inside my own head, thinking of the next funny thing to say, or how I could avoid looking awkward. I'm sure everybody experiences this to some extent, but for me, it never seemed to completely go away. Up until recently I didn't realize I still felt the need to be entertaining, to say the right thing, to always have an answer, to never allow a lull in conversation. I'm learning again to pause, to observe, to incubate, to imagine what might be, to not be afraid of not having anything to say.

So here I am saying it all where anybody can read it. :)

But this is more for me than you.

I'm committing to things less and committing to people more, and not people for my sake--people for their sake. I think each person is wrapped in poetry if I have eyes to see it. I slow down, worry less about how they perceive me, and just watch them. Their eyes, their hands, their mouths. I don't think about offending or taking offense, but seeing into that other layer where dreams and reality mix, where vulnerability shines through. And I'm learning to be vulnerable too. My story characters recently haven't felt real to me, and that's bad for a writer. I learned it's because I keep many people--people that care about me even--at arm's length. I think to avoid pain, mine or theirs. But what is life, what is story, without pain--the contrast of which is the silver lining of grace? That's where I want to live.

So I've started filling out applications, finding references, requesting transcripts, creating new stories, and, most importantly, living behind "the seen."