Next weekend, Lesley University will open its doors to another 10-day residency for students in its Low Residency MFA Program.
Fifth semester students will be presenting seminars and public readings at the end of the week before they graduate, and before all that happens, they'll stride across the campus and camp out under the trees like gods and goddesses in their own universe. Fourth semester students will be moving quickly from place to place, equally eager and anxious about this being their last set of workshops. Third semester students will be outwardly confident, walking slowly because they've given themselves enough time for everything, rooted securely in the knowledge that they have a full year left to enjoy all this magic. Second semester students will be resolute, relieved to know where classrooms are, excited to work with a mentor they actually got to choose this time around, thrilled to see their writing friends again.
And first semester students?
Mouths open. Eyes spinning in opposite directions. Carrying far too many books. Confounded by the simultaneous urge to laugh and to cry.
Prepping for a low residency masters program in advance might seem overwhelming, but arriving on campus to experience one is more so. First semester students will be wandering the lovely, compact Lesley campus, almost perpetually lost. They'll be early for the wrong classes. Late for the wrong meals. Their pens will run out of ink mid-seminar. They'll find themselves sitting on stairs in violation of the fire code during readings at Marran Theater because the place is unexpectedly packed! Before their first set of workshops, they'll be fighting nervous nausea. After their first set of workshops, somebody will cry. (It was me. That's how I know.)
That's the important thing for all first-timers to remember. Every single Lesley student, even the ones glowing with effortless ease, have been in your place.
You can't actually prepare for the heavenly, chaotic boot camp that is the first residency. But few people are willing to accept that. So, in case you're gearing up to spend your first 10 days at Lesley (or Goddard, or Bennington, or Palm Desert, or any of the other numerous and prestigious Low Residency Creative Writing MFA programs), allow me to give you what little insight I can.
The following is my response to a wonderful email I received yesterday from a student about to start at Lesley. I hope it helps!
The first-person memoir seeks to accomplish many things. If it is successful, the narrator acts as a guide on safari, a conduit of culture, an ambassador to a new society, and a foreign correspondent. Her story is both captivating and relatable, a feat accomplished by pushing herself one step further than pure story-telling. The author acknowledges that she is driving the getaway car. She purposely breaks through the boundary of the page and brings the reader along for the ride through the occasional, precise, and sometimes surprising use of the second-person point of view.
In college I studied Shooting an Elephant (1936), an essay included in this collection, which recounts George Orwell's time as a young British police officer in Burma. The essay has haunted me in the years since.
It was the brutality that stuck with me, the killing scene, one which goes on for several pages as Officer Orwell fires "shot after shot into [the elephant's] heart and down his throat" while the beast refuses to die. But more than that, it was the brutality of his reflections about the time, the place, the Empire occupying the place, the native people, the class system, and the self who suffered the execution of the elephant "solely to avoid looking a fool" (Orwell, 156). That honesty cut me to the bone.
In his famous essay about life at a boarding school in England as a youngster, Such, Such Were the Joys... (1949), Orwell opens with the horrors inflicted on the little boys who wet their beds. Today we acknowledge that this is an innocent phase in every child's life. We also know that most boys struggle with the training longer than most girls, but this story is only the first of many. Orwell goes on to relate the punishments and canings, the bullying, the accusations of latent homosexuality, the prejudices of his headmaster and instructors, his own laziness. Nothing is off-limits.
By being willing to touch on every subject, willing to treat nothing with undue deference or discretion, Orwell accomplishes as unbiased a study of childhood as possible. Children, he believes, live in "a sort of alien under-water world which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves" (Orwell, 44). This chief clue is what drives Orwell's writing about his past, and he transcribes his memories as well as possible. Accuracy, though, can be relative.
"In general, one's memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it... But it can also happen that one's memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others." (Orwell, 5)
The cover of the current edition of Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is split down the middle by a vaguely tribal design, the title to the right and a black and white baby picture of the author on the left. Young Bobo Fuller's mouth is wide open in a squall and her shoulders are squared for battle. If this photo were described by the author, though, she might say that the child's shoulders are battle-squared and her mouth is screaming-wide.
Fuller is masterful when it comes to compounding her descriptions, harnessing her adjectives to one another with hyphens. Her word choices are simple, words that are familiar to one whose childhood hinged on a wild, sometimes barbaric plain, and rose from a landscape peppered with gunfire and dotted with packs of dogs. She describes her childhood in these terms. The patted-down red earth. The boiled-meat smell of dog food. The neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps. The oven-breath heat. These hyphenated descriptions set the tone for the memoir.
She writes in the first-person present-tense, but the tone is not omniscient and looking-back, the way one might think an adult memoirist would write about such tormented circumstances. Rather, she calls upon the way a child would describe what she sees. This is especially true when she recalls her mother:
Mum sitting "yoga cross-legged" as her beloved dogs sit "prick-eared" and watching. And after death of baby Adrian, once the family moves back to "working-class, damp-to-the-bone Derbyshire," it is Mum "sleeves-rolled-up running after two small children" (37). And upon the family's return to Africa, Mum is "don't-interrupt-me-I'm busy all day" (42). These are word portraits, culled by a child watching her conundrum of a mother as she ages, pulls through the death of a second child, and devolves from "being a fun drunk to a crazy, sad drunk" (93).
My monthly submissions to Lesley University's MFA program each include two craft annotations. When we "freshmen" were first presented with this requirement at our initial residency in June, the idea of writing a craft annotation about any book was enough to frighten many of us, but I was intrigued. After all, while I've continued to read and read and read since my graduation from UC Davis in 2006, I've missed the opportunity to analyze my readings in writing.
(That probably sounds a little crazy to some of you. Let me explain.)
When the movie Pride & Prejudice was released in 2005, people raved. I raved. As a child, I was addicted to the 1940 version. Sir Lawrence Olivier was the only Darcy I could imagine, and I would daydream about him. Soft cheeks and immaculate sideburns, the way his tongue softened the Zs in the word "Lizzy." I would sometimes alter my voice to accomodate Greer Garson's breathy British accent. This confused my teachers in elementary school, but on the whole they were understanding. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Busselen, never batted an eye, failing even to chide me for a three-week phase in which I signed my name at the top of all my assignments as Elizabeth Bennett.
(Where am I going with this? Stick with me.)
Anyway, the new version of P&P came out and, even as someone who loathes remakes of my favorite classics (Cheaper by the Dozen with Steve Martin as a slapstick father? Sacrilege!), I found the metamorphosis of the period piece disarming. Especially when I realized that I left the theater no longer daydreaming about the genteel 1940s Mr. Darcy, but viscerally craving the brooding 2005 Mr. Darcy.
In two hours all he'd done was scowl and look down his perfect nose, he'd danced once with Elizabeth, saved the entire bevy of Bennetts from destitution, and then... oh yes, he'd walked across a field.
Outside the theater, I could close my eyes and command him to walk across that field again and again. Mist and morning ebbed around him as his legs stalked between the rolling clumps of reeds and blue-green grasses. Toward me.
He had bewitched me, body and soul.
(Seriously, I'm getting there.)
I called him to mind over and over. Jaw. Voice. Eyelashes. Everything. And it pleased me.
That ability to replay a moment and feel the twinge of pleasure again, to shock my heart into skipping a beat, is one of my favorite parts of being alive. I hope everyone does this, not only with movies, but with life. Stop for a second and remember your first kiss. Matthew's lips tasted like rootbeer on the February evening. Remember sinking the game-winning, at-the-buzzer shot. Three--two--one--Pancoast with the three! Remember the best compliment you ever received. And remember how you glowed in the echo of those glorious, memorable moments.
I do this with books, too. After I've read a book like--oh--The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver or The Book Lover by Ali Smith or Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon, my greatest desire is to relive the experience of that heavenly read. But that's harder. No flawless lips. No broad shoulders trailing a cape-like coat that flickers around mud-caked boots. Only words. The turn of a phrase. Rhythm. Vocabulary. Wordsmithing. Unless I repeat the best of these aloud, or write them down to share with someone else, I don't get that same pleasurable shiver.
So for me, the craft annotations at Lesley U have filled that void. I now have an avenue in which to share my favorite parts of a reading.
The true goal behind the craft annotation is to prove that I've not only read the books in question, but I've also gleaned something key about the craft of writing from the talented authors. That key is something I must be able to shoulder and take back to my own cave to further my evolution as a writer.
For my first set of craft annotations, I wrote about Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, two colorful memoirs. The following is the craft annotation I submitted for Ondaatje's work. (And to tie this in with past entries, in Hermaphrodite Flake - Part II I wrote that "I was alone with the nearly-noontime sun and the memoirs of a Sinhalese poet." Michael Ondaatje was up on the rock with me.)