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A Two Week Sprint – Preparing for an Artist’s Residency

A photo taken from the Brush Creek Foundation website.

Tuesday morning (very, very early, as Cami will tell you) I will head off to the Brush Creek Ranch, near Saratoga, Wyoming (via Denver and Laramie). I’ll be one of seven or eight other artists (two writers, two musicians, and four visual artists is the typical break down) who will be spending two weeks at the ranch as guests of the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. Each artist will have a private sleeping space, a studio space, and the time and opportunity to devote time to our work.

You can learn more about the Brush Creek Foundation, including how to apply for a residency, at their website.

In some ways, this upcoming opportunity has seemed like an iceberg, growing bigger and bigger on the horizon. (This probably has something to do with the abundance of Titanic-related documentaries that I’ve watched recently.) As March turned to April, I had to start thinking about my “plan” for making the two weeks of residency the most productive.

When I originally applied to the Foundation, my intention was to work on “the next novel” or at least on the collection of stories that are related to the next project I have in mind. I was thinking, at the time, that I’d be done with the first novel.

I’m not.

The four months of post-MFA life, so far, haven’t been as focused on the two older projects as I had hoped. I’ve written a few new stories, worked on revising and editing some of the early chapters of the book, worked on a few non-fiction bits and pieces, and so forth. I’ve spent time reading and writing. It hasn’t been a desert wasteland.

But the post-MFA life hasn’t been as productive as I’d hoped, either. And so, as I head off to Wyoming, I’m changing my expectations for the residency. Instead of laying the groundwork for a new novel, I’ll be focused on finishing the ongoing one.

For the last week, I’ve been going back over notes and handwritten bits and pieces, collecting the puzzle pieces I’ve scattered in various notebooks and folders, printing the forty (or so) micro-print-sized pages of original scenes that haven’t yet been worked into the book in its current form.

In order to understand a little about what I’ve done, it helps to jump back, for a moment, to understand how this book came to be.

  1. In 2005, I had been “not writing” fiction for a while. By “not writing” I mean that I was saying this a lot: “That would make an interesting short story.” I would jot down a line or two, maybe a brief outline or thought, then let it go. I wasn’t spending much time actually writing. I did, however, realize around this time that I felt a hole where my fiction writing should be. I started making longer notes. Scenes. Eventually, I started seeing characters in places and a full story came out.

  2. In 2006, I began writing a bit more frequently, with the goal of making a few “actual” stories. You know, a plot, a resolution to a problem, all that stuff. I wrote a story I called “Of Strawberries and Salvation” about a pastor’s wife, ex-wife, picking strawberries at a Pick-Your-Own strawberry patch. Later that year, I wrote another story about a woman working in a Catholic Soup Kitchen, who follows one of the homeless guys after he steals a Bible. I also wrote or started several other pieces, two of which I eventually used as my submission samples when I applied to the Queens MFA program.

  3. In 2007, I realized something: The two women in those two stories were the same woman. It didn’t matter that they had different names, different “hometowns”, different circumstances, with stories written in different tenses and points of view, even. This was the same character. This was the same story. I started making notes as her story opened up to me. In November, Cami and I went on a long-weekend, four-day trip to a little cabin in Ohio. During those four days, I wrote. And wrote. And by the end, had close to 50,000 words of Margaret’s story. I would write a scene, then another, then another. None of them were in order. Most of them didn’t demonstrate any sort of actual, you know, plot. They were back-story, childhood experiences, family traumas. But the words just kept coming. 50,000 words in just a few days was mammoth. Even if many of those words would never be used.

  4. 2008 was a tumultuous year. I didn’t spend a lot of time writing until September, when I came to terms with my lack of skill at insurance sales and embraced my role as a substitute teacher and tutor of children. I began to piece together the scenes and fill in the blanks. I had large sections of Margaret’s back-story, but I still had no idea how to make the strawberry patch lady and the soup kitchen gal into the same person in a way that made sense. I worked through it, I began to understand the form of the book would eventually take.

  5. 2009, I made great strides in writing the book. I reached the half-way point, and then some. I applied to Queens. I got accepted. I began to prepare for a MFA writing program.

  6. 2010, I workshopped the novel for two semesters. I received a lot of good feedback. I decided to focus on short fiction for the rest of my time at Queens.

  7. In the summer of 2011, before I began a massive revision of my short story collection/thesis, I spent two months re-writing (every single word) of the first half of the novel, now tentatively titled, I Should Love You Less. I incorporated the valuable feedback of writers Jonathan Dee and Jenny Offil, as well as my fabulous fellow writers. I applied what I had learned about myself as a writer. I moved a few things around. Raised the stakes.

To say I have a “pile” of papers associated with this book is an understatement. I have several thousand pages of drafts, notes, critiqued copies, working documents, and original pages. I have FOUR bound copies of the work in progress, all with notes and comments and arrows and slashes and frowny faces. There are timelines and character lists and lists of places. There are pages of research for various locations, time periods.

Just getting every piece together that I’ll need to reference as I plow into the writing of the last parts of the book has been a challenge.

But, I’m ready. At least, I think I am. I think I am. I think I can.

The next few weeks will be interesting. I can’t wait to see where this new experience takes me. I’ll fill you in when I return.

Another photo from the Brush Creek Foundation website. Check out the opportunities for artists by visiting their website.

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