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The MFA Years Begin

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What a summer, what a year — within just a matter of months, I graduated college, moved out of my house in Chicago, got married, traveled to Europe for my best friend’s wedding, and got a big girl job as a journalist & teacher. And today was my first day of graduate school orientation at the University of Central Florida in Orlando — my husband is also starting medical school this week.

Since I both work as a journalist and write fiction, I’ve received many questions from my students about why I’m choosing the MFA.

The MFA is something I’ve worked toward all throughout college. I went into Wheaton knowing I wanted to write fiction and I left with an even stronger conviction, having led our literary journal through two beautiful publications. And while I love journalism and my experience as a freelancer, reporter in Washington and editor of a newspaper, I’m choosing the MFA because I’m choosing to put my art first. 

I’m giving myself permission one week, one day, one hour at a time to prioritize my creative writing. My dear writing mentor at Wheaton told me as I was preparing to graduate that the most important part of the MFA is simply protecting my time and mental energy to create. The workshop environment will provide just that sort of support and community.

Alexander Chee (Iowa Writing Workshop alum) writes about the workshop method: “Listening to [peer’s] critiques forces you past the limits of your imagination and also your sympathies, and in doing so takes you past the limits of what you can reach for in your work on your own.”

I want to be forced past the limits of my imagination. And I’m ready for the challenge that awaits me in the next few years as I begin school and start preparing for my thesis. I know it will take more passion and endurance than any of my undergraduate projects, but I couldn’t be more excited for this journey to begin.

This past spring—on the day that I received my acceptance to UCF—I was attending a journalism conference in Chicago. While there, I met a reporter from the Chicago Tribune who sat down with me for a while to talk about his work. After telling him of my recent acceptance to an MFA program in fiction, he smiled and said he knew journalists in his building who had also completed their MFAs in Creative Writing. It made them more empathetic people. It made them better storytellers: and good journalism is simply a form of storytelling. But fiction allows us to go beyond a news story. We can enter into our characters’ alternative reality, which is both empathizing, humanizing, and humbling all at the same time.

My days will be very full with writing as I start classes very soon. But I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend the next few years than to surround myself by a community of artists who are all helping each other push past the limits of our imagination.

So here’s to the MFA, this exciting new venture. Here’s to putting art first.

If you want to keep up with me and my writing shenanigans, stick around. You can follow me on Instagram for regular updates or check out this page.

Much love,

Ciera

ALSO —

I’ve been on the hunt for the best, most innovative short stories or novels to keep my reading game strong. So if you have any recommendations, let me know what you’ve been reading this summer!

 

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On short stories and things

My short story “Naked” recently won first place at the College of DuPage’s Emerging Voices competition.

Check out the video of the reading here.

On another note, I begin my MFA in Creative Writing program this fall — which seems unreal. Perhaps it’s because I’ve dreamed of an MFA for so long; perhaps it’s because it still seems part of this vague, amorphous world called post-grad life. (I’m graduating next week, what?!)

Wheaton has given me incredible opportunities to work on my writing and sharpen my editorial skills. We launch the spring edition of our literary journal this week and in many ways, it feels like the culmination of my college experience and English major. (I’ll be sharing pictures soon after our launch on Saturday.) This journal holds a special place in my heart because it publishes work in translation, recognizing that for many students on this campus, English is not their first language. It is a journal which celebrates diversity, language, home and culture, how our writing is often deeply affected by our idea of home.

This is something I’ve been thinking about as I prepare to move back to Orlando — my hometown — to attend graduate school at the University of Central Florida. It is my home, and yet at the same time Wheaton and Chicago have become my home.

So what does home mean? How is it shaped by the people who come into our narratives, however fleetingly? How does our idea of place change over time?

Just a thought.

In the meantime, enjoy the video.

-Ciera

 

Thoughts on being too busy

eric-rothermel-23788I’m writing from the Record newspaper office since tonight is newspaper night when all the designers and editors scramble to get the paper to the printer. And I am tired. I am tired of thinking about all that I have to do before I graduate in 25 days, all the edits that need to go into my honors thesis, the details to put into place before graduate school begins in the fall—all the health forms, registration requests, and job applications punctuating the already hectic schedule of running two student publications, writing an honors thesis, and planning my wedding. I am tired and I don’t want to write about deadlines, job applications, personal statements, AP style, MLA style, my planner—in fact, I don’t want to write anything in my planner for a long, long time. But I will. Because my life seems to revolve around the liturgy of the calendar these days.

The word that has haunted my week—in all honesty, my semester—has been “busyness.”

I’ve been so busy that I have accidentally missed lunch dates and forgotten assignments. I’ve had to schedule time with friends and time to make food and eat.

All this in the midst of Holy Week. A time of reflection and stillness.

A girl I know at Wheaton describes Holy Week as a pilgrimage. We go through Jesus’ last days and the stations of the cross and we remember His life, death, and resurrection. Pilgrimage is a sacred journey, a process from one place to another, from one state to the next. During Holy Week, we embark on Pilgrimage as we descend to Good Friday and our hearts rise up with joy on Easter Sunday.

Pilgrimages have often inspired and perplexed me. I have friends who have hiked the Camino or made pilgrimages to Bethlehem. I have done no such thing. The idea of a long journey filled with contemplation often seems to take too much time and energy, though a part of me longs to go on such a trip. My one close-to-pilgrimage moment was visiting Canterbury Cathedral, the site and home of pilgrimages for hundreds of years, most famously characterized in The Canterbury Tales. But I found myself so in awe of the architecture, the art, the history that I didn’t know what to do with myself.

As a writer, my moments of stillness and introverted isolation are often filled with writing. Which means work. And if I’m not writing, then there’s a newspaper to be put out, a journal to edit, loved ones to be with, miles to clock for my half marathon training.

I didn’t quite realize how busy I felt until this week. Marie Howe — quite possibly the greatest living poet and most definitely my favorite — was on Wheaton’s campus. She hosted a master class for the finalists in the Lowell Grabill writing competition and her words of deep wisdom inspire.

At the reading, she read a poem which has continued to resonate with me:

Magdalene—The Seven Devils

The first was that I was very busy.

The second—I was different from you: whatever happened to you could
not happen to me, not like that.

The third—I worried.

The fourth—envy, disguised as compassion.

The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid,
The aphid disgusted me.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The mosquito too—its face.    And the ant—its bifurcated body.

Ok   the first was that I was so busy.

The second that I might make the wrong choice,
because I had decided to take that plane that day,
that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early
and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street
the house would blow up.

The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer
of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing.

The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living

The sixth—if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I
touched  the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had
to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.  

The seventh—I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that
was alive, and I couldn’t stand it.
I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word—cheesecloth—
to breath through that would trap it—whatever was inside everyone else that
entered me when I breathed in.

No.  That was the first one.

The second was that I was so busy.  I had no time.   How had this happened?
How had our lives gotten like this?

The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it—distinct, separate
from me in a bowl or on a plate.

Ok. The first was that. I could never get to the end of the list.
The second was that the laundry was never finally done.

The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did.
And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was
love?

The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong
to anyone.

The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.

The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling…

How she speaks to me in this poem.

I guess the truth is, I don’t want to want to be busy. It’s as simple as that, but still difficult to enact. I want to steward my time and work well, to invest both in my writing and the people I love.

So I am learning to say no. I’m learning to fight for the time to sit at my desk and churn out the words. I’m fighting for the ability to make space and take the time for art, for reading, for running, for cooking good food, for being still.

And as my season at Wheaton is rapidly coming to a close, I hope to take the time to remember all the aspects of this place that I will miss the most. Wheaton has been a holy place for me. And I want to lock into memory all the sense of this place, the smell after an April rain, the bark on my favorite tree on Blanchard lawn in which I’ve spent hours reading, the papers stacked around the Record newsroom in permanent disarray, the laughter in my house and the smell of stovetop popcorn.

So as we go into Holy Week, my prayer is for stillness, even if it’s just for a brief moment … because there’s still a lot to do before graduation in 25 days and a wedding in 66 days, and grad school in 131 days. (But then again, who’s counting?)

A Whole New WORLD

I’m in Asheville, North Carolina for a two week intensive journalism program with WORLD magazine.

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Today, I have been reflecting on the past semester and the habits I have been forming in college about work, prayer, discipleship, writing. So often, my work becomes stressful and busy. Rest becomes idleness. Efficiency and excellence become crippling obsessions.

So as I sit here with my Chinese tea, and the cup with the 100 creepy cats, in a town I don’t know, waiting to join friends I haven’t met yet, I’m thinking about how to dedicate this time. Dedications (like promises) are futile if we don’t follow through with them. And I know that I will never be a perfect Christian or a perfect student or perfect writer. Especially not if I act like my work defines me.

Every picture I take, every word I write, is worth nothing if it’s not for God, if it’s not in recognition of His grace.

I feel that a George Herbert poem is due.

DISCIPLINE

Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
                  O my God,
Take the gentle path.
For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
                  I aspire
To a full consent.
Not a word or look
I affect to own,
                  But by book,
And thy book alone.
Though I fail, I weep:
Though I halt in pace,
                  Yet I creep
To the throne of grace…
May I “creep to the throne of grace” while learning how to write, study, report about the world. My prayer for this week is that I would have a deeper, richer understanding of God and His world through writing, that I may be more wholly equipped to serve Christ and His Kingdom through my words.
Best wishes to all you fellow writers.
Until then, I’m drinking this darn good tea.
-Ciera
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Originality Is In My Failure

“My originality is in my failure. What gets in the way of my imitation, are the things that make me what I am.”

Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes made this insightful statement about the pursuit of originality for a poet. A profoundly influential poet in his own right, Dawes came to visit Wheaton a few weeks ago and I had the delightful opportunity to hear him speak in our class. His unique perspective as a postcolonial writer with transnational roots give him the authority to speak to a wide breadth of experiences in the genre of Black British Literature.

Kwame Dawes Portrait
Listen to a reading of “Tornado Child” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-guTTBeivg

Dawes explained how originality really comes from mimicry, in light of the common truism that good writers are simply good readers. A poet may admire George Herbert and try to copy the way Herbert has the form mirror the thematic material of a poem; however, this amateur writer will surely fail in copying the style of the masterful metaphysical poet.

Yet in this failure, the young artist will find his own experiences and put them to words. He will discover his voice, his interests, his tone, and the metaphors that spring from his own life. Therefore, originality stems from failed imitation. Extrapolating upon this, Dawes said that, “No one woke up one day and said to himself, ‘Hm. I shall create something. And I shall it poetry.’ No! Instead, we build upon each other!” In essence, we learn how to create by watching others create.

This truth is also rooted deeply in historical tradition and the theological understanding of the image of God as the divine creator. Our creativity comes from being made in God’s likeness. When we use our imagination and create something (visual art, music, poetry, prose) we are only playing with the pawns of God’s imagination, which is an inherently sacramental view of the world. Given this background, I was not surprised to hear that one of Dawes’ favorite writers was Gerard Manley Hopkins, who has been hailed as a poet who writes with a sacramental view of the world. Ultimately, Dawes’ assertion that originality is in his failure, has broadened my perspective on what it means to value originality as a writer, artist and academic.

Do not be crippled by your desire to be original. Recognize that we learn to write and read in community, by observing and studying other writers and readers first.

If Shakespeare Had A Sister

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the role of women in the world of writing.


This week, I’ve been pouring over the sheer genius of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. She speaks with such conviction about a subject very dear to my heart.  What is the role of women in society, in art, in academia, in politics?  How is she portrayed in history?  What options were available to her vs. what should be available?

Woolf writes, “The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” Hence we have writers like George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte)…women who had to use pen names for their works to be taken seriously in an age when women were expected to write frivolous stories.


One part of the text especially speaks with great boldness. Woolf contemplates what would have happened if Shakespeare had a sister who was the brilliant writer.  Would the world remember her genius? Probably not. We have fairly little poetry, art, music, journal entries or plays from women before the 19th century.


Still the question lingers. What would a woman have done with the same talent?


I have therefore written my own limerick poem on this subject. I hope you enjoy.


If Shakespeare Had A Sister

If Shakespeare had a sister,
Brilliant she must be,
With words all flowing from her heart
Of love and tragedy.

She’d write up in the apple loft
And on the cottage grounds,
Lifting her ever far away 
From home where she was bound.

But while William learned his Ovid,
His Virgil and his prose,
Dear sister darned the stockings,
Twas her place, Heaven knows.

She wrote in secret when she could
Until there came the morn
When father said that she should marry
To have a baby born.

Now sister was in a panic.
Her writing she must save!
And so she left in dead of night
Lest she be a mortal slave.

In London, she could be free
To write of Caliban and Kate.
But instead the kings would only leer
For this was woman’s fate.

Her words were lovely, as was her face,
A half-moon made with a pen.
And yet her lines could pierce them not,
The stage was for the men.

They told her, “What’s this madness?
A woman with a mind?
Get thee to a nunnery
And leave this Globe behind.”

If Shakespeare had a sister,
Well, you wouldn’t know today.
The world of poets and philosophers
Said she had nothing to say.

And so she wrote her sonnets
Alone in apple trees,
Unable to have an audience
And bring them to their knees.


Kudos to everyone who caught the Shakespeare puns and references! I have also included a few pictures from my own experiences at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. These pictures show a few of the domestic scenes that would have been common for women at the time.


[Quick clip of Shakespeare’s cottage]

I’m thankful to live in a world that has been affected by the work of writers such as Virginia Woolf, who paved the way for women to be writers, to be taken seriously, to have a room of their own.

What do you think about women & fiction?

What do you think would have happened if Shakespeare had a sister?


"A Writers Life For Me" Tag

Hello friends.

It’s been a long few weeks, but I’m back to the blogging world.  Many thanks to Alexa Winters for this tag – and for graciously giving me time to finish it. 🙂

What Kind Of Writer Are You?
I love so many different kinds of writing. Short stories. Novellas. Novels. Articles and editorials. Travel writing.  Most of all, I like writing about ordinary experiences and family complexities.

When Did You Start Writing? What Made You Want To Try It?
I began writing in kindergarten. My first piece was on George Washington and the Cherry Tree. I guess I was always inclined to historical fiction!  Since then (which was about fifteen years ago now…so weird) I’ve done historical fiction, fantasy, steampunk, mystery and many other styles.
What Inspires Your Stories?
Travel. People. People’s stories. Beauty and art.
What Themes Do You Like To Explore In Your Writing?

I love writing about social issues, be it racial reconciliation, addiction, gender roles.

Are You A Pantser, A Plotter, or A Bit Of Both?
A plotter. But sometimes I like to be surprised.

Where Are You At In Your Writing Journey? Querying? Agenting? Published?
Erm…it’s been a long process.
But…
Have You Ever Entered Any Writing Contests? Finaled? Won?
Yes, I’ve entered quite a few writing contests. I’ve won 2nd place at the Wheaton College undergraduate writing contest for fiction for the past two years.

Who Are Your Writer Heroes?
Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, C.S. Lewis, Emily Dickinson

Have You Ever Been To A Writing Conference? Share Your Best and Worse Experiences.
Yes, twice to the ICRS show (once back when it was called CBA). Loved it. My favorite part was seeing Jerry Jenkins (author of Left Behind) slash through first page submissions. 
Top 3 Tips You’d Give To Newbie Writers:
1) Being better or worse than someone else doesn’t make you any more or less of a writer.
2) Surround yourself by people who do what you want to do. Strive for excellence in the craft itself, not preemptive recognition. 
3) Listen to criticism, but stand up for your art.

Thanks for the tag, Alexa @ Summer Snowflakes!
The rules: 
Answer the questions
Share the picture
Link back to the person who tagged you
Tag new people!