Fifteen years ago I dreamed of going back to school. I’d pursue a Master in Fine Arts and become a novelist. I began my second semester earlier this month with a 10-day MFA residency in Seaside, OR with Pacific University. With the beach the backdrop, I took in lectures and classes, participated in workshops, and made new friends. At the end of each day, I returned to the hotel to connect with my partner, who encourages me and is supportive of my vision for my life and career.
This being my first in-person residency, I came away feeling enriched and inspired in ways I could only have previously imagined. Being in the MFA program is a 15-year dream of mine, and while I’ve experienced some regrets about not doing it until now, this moment in time also feels like the one that is meant for me, particularly as I continue to rise from the ashes of my trauma that almost took my life nearly two years ago.
I mention the trauma because as I listened to the craft talks at the residency, I kept hearing about the importance of the person and about the value of one’s real-life experiences. From poet Leila Chatti’s talk about using words to honor the good in the midst of trauma to novelist Cecily Wong’s advice about living one’s life and not seeing it as an intrusion upon one’s writing, the residency helped to bridge the gap that I had constructed between what I call therapeutic writing and “real” writing. I had been afraid that my trauma appeared too often and showed up too loudly on the page, that I must find a way to “write clean.” However, I now see that I do not need to compartmentalize my writing, but rather to use all forms of my expression as a way to truth. If writing about something that touches one of my wounds brings me to weeping on the page, or if I craft a character who is experiencing a pain I’ve known intimately, perhaps there will be value to that, knowing that I’ve walked through the darkness in order to find light.
Here are some of the moments that spoke to me deeply—not just as a writer, but as a person who is a writer.
Shara McCallum’s list of questions in her talk As If Your Life Depended On It took me on a journey through the decades of my life as I considered the pieces of writing that have defined me, pierced me, and drawn me back to reread them time and time again. Though I haven’t always known or tried to understand why a particular poem, passage, or lyric has embedded itself into my heart, the process of remembering and compiling these pieces is providing a deeper sense of what moves me, delights me, or brings me to tears. It’s helping me to appreciate the deep emotional loneliness I experienced as a child, the depression I experienced yet could not name as a teenager, and the profound beauty of redemption I’ve tasted as an adult.
MFA director Scott Korb’s lecture Feeling Free introduced me to Joan Didion and Toni Morrison’s writings on self-respect and self-regard, which I’ll be exploring in more detail this semester. While my creative work for the MFA is in fiction, I also write nonfiction and am readying myself to tell a personal story of great importance to me. When I begin, it will be essential that I embrace what Didion wrote in her article “Self-respect” for Vogue in 1961: “people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. … people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character. … character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” It is such courage that I hope to display in my work.
I learned from poet Joseph Millar that in an elegy, a poet moves from grief to consolation, a promise that the dawn does come. This truth is one that I experienced on my own darkest night nearly two years ago, after which, in writing, I discovered that the night was indeed bathed in light.
Author Claire Davis spoke about how establishing a habit of art is about developing a new way of being in the world, one that involves the process of writing, but also learning to live more deeply. The phrase “a different way of being in the world” has been a guidepost for me ever since my spiritual director used it two years ago, and Davis’s talk has me contemplating again what this phrase means for me at this moment in my life. Certainly, I agree with what she said: that by living more deeply, the result is a better life and better art.
Poet Leila Chatti, in Praise in Hard Times, spoke about the profound healing work of the praise poem, which acknowledges the thing that makes our hearts break while allowing us to rise as we honor also what is good. She shared the way that praise links back to the divine by using the example of the medieval composer and poet Hildegard von Bingen, who despite illness believed herself blessed and devoted herself to praise, and the English mystic Julian of Norwich who, after being struck with an illness so severe she thought she would die, wrote her famous words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Indeed, studies show the benefits of having a posture of praise and gratitude, and I have experienced this in my own work of overcoming depression and the trauma that resulted in PTSD, and I was inspired listening to this crossover of writing and recovery.
Poet Mahtem Shiferraw spoke of the power of using silence as incantation—silence not as the absence of sound, but as something, perhaps like stillness, that can guide us through an entryway into reaching the truth as we write. As Shiferraw said, “Silence knows no fear”—not of trauma, nor of anything else that has happened. Rather, when we face the fear, we can find redemption. I love this. In the wake of the trauma and near loss of my life in 2021, I experienced the wisdom of this firsthand when I finally gave name to the things that had happened, sitting in the presence of the pain long enough to put into words to the things that I had wished to bury. By doing so, with my therapists and providers, I began the process of healing, experiencing for myself the redemption that Shiferraw described.
During the residency, I learned much about the craft of writing and valued the workshop experience—things I expected from the beginning. What surprised me was that the experience helped me to integrate what I had tried to compartmentalize and taught me that bringing my whole wounded-healed self to the page is what being a writer is all about.
If you’ve been around a while, you know that in 2021 I dismantled my life, taking apart the pieces and feeling my way into a new way to life. I turned 40 and became a divorced, single mom sharing custody of my children, reviving my career, and finally entering grad school. That, along with maintaining my small business.
Life is complex, in the best ways possible. Though the days are full, they’re lifegiving as I live into my values and strive each day to show up for my people and for my dreams.
Writers will say that they feel most like themselves when they’re writing, and that’s certainly true for me.
Grateful for all the twists and turns that it took to get to this point in life. I am truly blessed.