DIY MFA Part 2: My Big Kid Pants Don’t Fit… Yet

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Excuse me, Provost? Yes, I think there must be some mistake. I thought I ordered ‘Big Kid Pants’ for graduation but all I got was this shapeless gown and a funny hat with a tassel.

When I was a young girl, I despised writing… book reports (hah, gotcha). In fourth grade when my mother discovered I had neglected to write over twenty, one-page reports for a book we were reading in class, first she sat me down and made me write them. With her. All night. And second, every day on the way to school, she made me say ‘I love writing book reports. I love writing book reports.’ fifty times over in the car.

Fascinatingly, eight years later I became an English major who elected to take extra lit classes.

If anything in life were to show me the simple power of the pen, that moment was it. With words you can rewrite your world. You make the world what you tell yourself it can be.

In the DIY MFA mindfulness manifesto, we are given several principles to digest that make good sense to me: your resistance to a project could mean it will be a breakthrough project, writer’s block doesn’t exist, don’t compound your failure with feelings of guilt, and one writer’s best practice may not (likely will not) be yours. These all seem like good tools to have in a mental toolbox for motivating oneself to write, to write the way you do best, and to write without guilt.

But I struggled with some of Pereira’s phrasing – particularly “Sometimes you desperately want to write but you just… can’t…when you sit down to write, you freeze.” Pereira states that the solution to this bewildering resistance is to ‘put on your big-kid pants and write’. You and what words, Pereira? Seriously, though – how?

 I know this feeling of freezing, having written about that anxiety in my post on The Perpetual Writer’s Block. Unfortunately ‘just writing’ when frozen is as alien a notion to me as asking a drowning man to put on his big-kid pants and just breathe.

Trust me, if that was an option, I would.

Hopefully, Pereira expounds on this foundational principle later in the book – on how to get your big-kid pants on and break the ice, so to speak. However, I sense this is the attitude of a senior writer speaking almost condescendingly to a novice, forgetting the distinct helplessness of those fledgling moments. I believe it is the practice, practice, practice that Pereira rightly espouses later in the orientation section that teaches one how to break the ice (or avoid it altogether), not any momentary mental gymnastics. Just like my mantra on book reports took eight years to turn me into an English major, so too does learning to break the writing freeze take considerable time and effort.

Writing daily is like repeating the mantra ‘I can write at will’ in your head and the more you do it, the less likely you are to get frozen. Unfortunately, the point when you may be most frozen – as a novice – is when you have the least support, community, etc to help you ‘put on your big kid pants’ and move forward. Younger writers must be given real strategy, not condescending metaphor, to train themselves to get past these frozen moments. This may be especially important for young hopefuls coming out of academia where external motivators were a sole source of motivation and, without pressing deadlines, these post-education writers are forced to suddenly develop sufficient internal motivation overnight.

Are you a senior writer who still struggles with the feeling of being frozen – a junior writer who has uncovered tactics for pushing on past the ice? Share your tips with me below – I’d love to hear them. Until then, I’ll just practice, practice, practice!

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DIY MFA Part 1: Orientation

For those of you paying close attention, you may have noted I’m intending to go to graduate school in Biology in the fall and not to earn my MFA. And yet, here I sit, managing a blog and website more dedicated to my love of the craft of writing than to my personal scientific pursuits. Since I would hate to miss out on any opportunity for schooling, I decided to pick up the DIY MFA, a new book by Gabriela Pereira that teaches its readers to write with focus, read with purpose, and build a community (what Pereira asserts are the three main principles of an MFA program).

Pereira’s book calls for her readers to do some surprising work that, at its surface, isn’t writing; many books, such as Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See, teach us that there is more to being a good writer than writing itself. I’d like to follow my journal engaging with her material and doing my own DIY MFA as a bi-weekly segment on this blog for… well, however long a DIY MFA lasts. Hopefully, for other writers working on developing their writing, reading, and community outside the MFA this experiment of mine will be useful.

And I do call it an experiment since Pereira’s first piece of advice (when distilled) is for writers to use the scientific method to develop good writing habits. She develops the acronym VITAL: choose input and output Variables, collect Information, set a Trip wire, evaluate and Analyze, and Learn and decide what’s next.

For my first two weeks, Aug 1 to Aug 14, I will be travelling between my former home and new home, so I’ve decided to test the input of light exercise over factors I think are actually more important to my writing (like place, writing time, and music/noise) which I cannot control given my extended travel. Each day before writing, I will stretch and take a ten minute run (hey, it’s hot out okay?) to see if that unsettles or invigorates me.

I’ll be using Pereira’s writing tracker to note my quantitative writing progress and qualitative experience over the two weeks, as well as which type of project I’m working on (as my needs for CNF, poetry, and genre fiction seem to be very different). My ‘tripwire’ (something that reminds me to evaluate my progress) will be this blog post; I will evaluate my previous twelve days of writing through the newest post and then learn and decide what my next variable will be as I write.

So far as I know, my best writing happens at midnight in Dennys at Geneseo with coffee, sad music, pancakes, and a looming deadline.

Throughout the two weeks, I will also be updating you with my thoughts on various parts of DIY MFA and how I think they fit into the reality of being a ‘young hopeful’ writer.

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What I’m Working On

Short term projects:

I’m incredibly excited to announce that I’ve finally finished beta-testing my game, Narborion Adventures: The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. I’ll say to beta-testers everywhere that I do not envy you and your job. Playing games in the most boring way possible is an experience I do not wish to repeat. I am sorry. You can read an interview with me about the project here, watch the game trailer here on their homepage (all the way to the left in the videos section), or – soon – buy the game in the app store (available for Android and iOS)!

After being inspired by a call for submissions of unfinished manuscripts by Carina Press, I’ve taken a small break from science-writing to work more completely on a historical romance novel that aims to turn some of the traditional regency troupes on their head. Hey, sometimes we have to give love a little time to shine, right?

Also, three of my poems, “Acerum on Fomalhaut b,” “Comma after Late Budbreak: Defoliation by an Invasive Pear,” and “Dirty” have been accepted for publication in The Trumpeter online literary journal. As soon as they’re published, I’ll be able to start posting Biopoetics for those poems!

Long term projects:

I’ve decided to join the Philadelphia Neuwrite chapter after meeting their founder; I wanted to follow up on my involvement in the science-writing collaboration group from my undergrad at Geneseo (where I was a founding member). My first meeting will be in September, but it won’t be my last!

I’ve decided to continue diversifying by joining the Collaborative Writing Challenge for Project 6, which will be a Fantasy/YA Fantasy novel. This jives well with my gamebook experience and love of the genre. The project works with four authors each signing on to write the same chapter of the book. Each author receives the chapter selected before their assigned chapter and a concept outline, after which they have a week to write their chapter and submit their material to the story coordinator. The story coordinator picks one chapter of the four submitted versions as the ‘winner’ and then sends it on to the next four writers… building the story. Submissions are accepted for the started chapter and voted on by all contributors to the project. I’ll be working on chapters 23 and 27, not due until Feb/March of 2017.

Lastly, I’ve been collaborating with my brother to create a biography of sorts about his craft distillery, Black Button Distilling located in Rochester, NY (if you have the opportunity to buy the Bourbon Cream and/or the gin, do it!).

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Shame and Publications

One of the alumna of my undergraduate institution, Katherine Fusco, recently wrote a post I’d like to highlight: So, I’ve Been Publicly Shamed: On Writing and Resilience. As with all posts that I write about the works of others, I recommend you read the original piece first to better understand and engage with my post.

Fusco graduated from Geneseo in 2003, long before I began attending, and went on to earn her M.A. and PhD from Vanderbilt. She has numerous publications, teaches courses at the University of Nevada, and holds the Crowley Distinguished Professorship in Core Humanities. She is an excellent role model for a younger alumna like myself, just beginning her journey towards a PhD and a writing career. Recently, Fusco was publicly mocked online for her academic work in the field of film studies.

Fusco’s article is well worth a read, crossing the STEM-Humanities divide to speak to every person who publishes work as part of their career. Fusco was mocked on Twitter, where an account I won’t name (so as not to give them attention) posted a photograph of the abstract of an academic article she wrote with the caption, “When you’re not all too bright but the salary’s better in academia than Starbucks.” Fusco speaks of old feelings of fear resurfacing as the Twitterverse began to retweet and engage – fear that she was not good enough (as an academic, a writer, a thinker), fear that her coworkers were all laughing at her, fear that her public college undergraduate education was a stain on her reputation in the often-classist structure of academia.

Fusco’s work is just one of many to be mocked; much of the ridiculed work relates to women’s issues, feminism, or is simply written by women (leaving those mocking them to distribute their picture and comment on their appearance, as Fusco notes happened to her). We could derail into a feminist dialogue here (albeit an important conversation to have), but I’d rather stay focused on something else: As writers/researchers, whether we publish academic work or creative work, we must become prepared to deal with the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that will come up when we, and our work, are mocked online. Gone are the days when a scientist’s work and the critique of their work were largely separated from them as a person.

As a young writer, I worry that I don’t have the resilience Fusco displays – that I don’t have the maturity, sense of self, and career behind me to overcome being mocked. I hardly have the presence of self to send out work for potential publication or share my poetry with my writing group. In undergrad English courses we talked a lot about how to be resilient in the face of rejection by academic or literary journals, but not at all about how to overcome the feelings associated with being actively harassed for our work. When writers are not able to overcome these feelings of fear, anger, and shame when other ridicule or mock them for their publications, we lose valuable, communal knowledge, stories, truths, etc. as those writers/scientists stop pursuing certain lines of work or publishing.

It’s ridiculous to assume that we can stop online trolls but shouldn’t we better prepare our young writers/researchers to deal with often personal harassment and ridicule? If yes, how do we prepare them? Fusco offers some advice, as a scholar and teacher, to others who find themselves mocked, saying:

  1. Writing something better would not have mattered.
  2. Your work is not you.
  3. Some people wish you would just shut up and go away.

It’s important we teach young scholars and writers these principles (among others like: don’t feed the trolls) to prepare them for ‘peer review’ not by literary or academic publications but by the masses that often engage in ‘intellectual crusades’ against those that offer alternate views, lifestyles, etc. As our work and our selves become more intertwined with the ever-increasing net the internet casts, we must prepare the next generation of writers/researchers to deal with all kinds of critics, and to know which ones to ignore. We must teach this generation how to heal when ridiculed, how to respond, how to be resilient like Fusco works hard to be. Otherwise, we run the risk of having many writers shut up and go away, letting the trolls win to the detriment of society as a whole.

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The Perpetual Writer’s Block

Last December to February, I was behind on a writing contract (for the game/app I’m almost done beta-testing…finally). Every day, before and after class, in between homework and sorority, I did nothing but write. With the story rounding out at 185,000 words and completion in 2.5 months, I wrote an average of 2,312.5 words a day. I think one day I wrote about 9,000 words. It was nuts.

For the past month, however, I’ve been trying my hand at regularly producing content for this blog and I’ve discovered what makes my writer’s block shine.

  1. Not having a deadline – as a former college student (and soon-to-be grad student), I’ve realized that I’m very motivated by deadlines and… not by much else
  2. Perfectionism –  each post gives me the anxiety attack of wondering if this post will help or hurt my career overall (the logical side of my brain understands the answer is neither). How can I post something now when I’m not my best writing self yet? Paradoxically, of course, becoming your best writing self takes practice – say, developing content for a blog or something.
  3. Wanting to write something else – honestly, anything else. As soon as I settle down to write something for this blog, I quickly decide I want to write something else. Anything. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, recipes for pizza rolls.

You’d think the fact that this blog is in its infancy would help me not worry about being perfect; logically, if no one is reading what I write what does it matter? Unfortunately it seems I still have a ways to go before I separate my writing self from my emotional self enough to write unburdened by anxiety.

Do any of you suffer from writer’s block in the form of how-to-write and not what-to-write? How do you handle it?

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Works in Progress

This month, I’ve been working on several new poems for my Sugar Maple cycle. I was inspired to write again after my father and I took a trip around New York and happened to visit the memorial park where my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother, and great-grandfather all have their ashes buried. It was my first time visiting after my grandparents died a few years ago. The trip included tears.

As we approached the plaques set into the ground, my father remarked how it was hard to find the right nameplates because they’re all flat and slowly are covered by grass and leaves. “Mom – your grandma,” he told me, “Always liked this spot because it was easy to find. You find the garden, and they’re just under this large tree here. She always liked the tree.”

It turned out, upon closer inspection by this young ecologist, that the tree was a sugar maple. My recent fascination with this particular, though ubiquitous in the Northeastern US, tree species, felt like it had been given new breath and poetic meaning as we wound our way home through the back roads of rural New York.

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Making charcoal at Jack Daniel’s, Jack Daniel Distillery; Public Domain

I’ve also become fascinated by something my brother told me; Jack Daniels whiskey is actually mellowed over charcoal made from sugar maple timbers as part of production. It’s crazy how, once you’re attuned to something, you see it everywhere.

In addition to those poems, I’m in the midst of beta testing my Narborion Adventures game, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. As my first game development experience, I can easily say I’ve learned so much about the hard work game developers put into the process – especially when it comes to beta testing a choose-your-own-adventure game! Whew! I can also say that I can’t wait for another opportunity because working with Liber Primus on this fantasy-adventure, while not easy, has been very fun.

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Geek and Sundry – Hard Science Book Contest

For those of you who don’t know, Geek and Sundry is a commercial YouTube channel and multimedia production company – on their channel, they nerd out over comics, LARPs, RPGs, weaponry in fantasy games, romance novels, comedy, and much, much more. Felicia Day (you probably know her from her role in Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog) and Wil Wheaton (you probably know him from Star Trek: The Next Generation) are prominent players so you should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

As an amazing science-writing collaboration, Inkshares and Geek and Sundry have teamed up to do a publishing contest for books in the genre of hard science fiction. You can check out the video below for more information or to vote on your favorite contestants. The contest is open until May 16th, 2016 – plenty of time for you to submit your amazing ideas and get backers!

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This blog and me

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Photo credit: Keith Trammel Photography

About the Blog:

It seems that our society is growing more dependent on science even as we grow increasingly distrustful of the news media that are generally reporting the latest scientific advances. I can’t blame us – often the headlines we are fed make it seem like cancer is cured, all bees are going extinct, and the zombie virus is knocking on our doors. How do we communicate the small steps that make up real scientific progress accurately, but still engage our readers?

That’s my goal here; to communicate the beauty of science through poetry, plays, articles, and more. I want to make the boundary between the fields of STEM and creative writing more porous. I want to discuss the important ethical questions of science and writing, too. What is literary citizenship? Does the end justify the means? What is the line between fiction and nonfiction, and when is it appropriate to use one or the other? Are our scientific discoveries neutral? What is the moral responsibility of the scientist, and the writer, to society?

There’s a lot to unpack here. On this blog I’ll be writing about scientific advancements, literary citizenship, the writing process, other written works, and perhaps a few odds and ends like gaming and gin and cats. Who doesn’t love cats?

About the Writer:12573946_1212730845408300_2641606434461195680_n

I am currently earning my PhD in Biology at Drexel University in Philadelphia – I’ll be at that for a long while. I earned my B.S. in Biology and English/Creative Writing from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where I was a member of the Honors College. At Geneseo, I was a founding member of NeuWrite/Edu, the first undergraduate chapter of the international science-writing collaboration group. I was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2015, my junior year, and served as a writing intern for their online news site, The Key Reporter in the spring of 2016. I wrote for my school newspaper, The Lamron, serving as an assistant editor from 2012-2013.

I’ve completed three ecology studies so far while in undergrad. The first is my honors capstone in Biology: Effects of the Emerald Ash Borer on Nations Road Research Reserve; the other two are directed study research projects: Native Bee Diversity and 12990940_1281985721816145_1685345968374993656_nAbundance at SUNY Geneseo and Determination of Colony Structure in Formica pergandei using Microsatellite Markers to Estimate Worker Relatedness. I have presented my research at regional and local conferences. I look forward to getting to do more research as I earn my PhD! I’ve also had the opportunity to teach undergraduate biology majors lab for three semesters, serve as the assistant instructor for a semester, and as a supplemental instructor for the freshman biology majors lecture for a semester. I can’t wait to keep teaching in my PhD program!

Lastly, I am an alumni member of Alpha Delta Epsilon regional sorority. I served as President, Vice President, Treasurer, New Member Educator, and Service Chair while an active member from Spring 2013 – Spring 2016. I owe so much to this group of my peers, who pushed me to be my best (and weirdest) self and consistently supported me in my writing and my research.

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