To MFA, or Not To MFA~

I belong to an Internet group of writers, some of whom have applied themselves to higher education in the form of an MFA in creative writing, and some, like me, are learning by the seat of their pants. I have always wondered if I was simply floundering in the dark and it would behoove me to go back to school, or whether I could succeed without it.

One of my writing buddies from the list has compared himself to Grandma Moses in his approach to writing. He is publsihed many times over as an essayist and has a memoir due out in the fall of this year. Although I admre him, I still wavered in my thinking.

I am currently taking an online class in creative nonfiction from UCLA’s outreach program, and someone in the class asked our instructor about MFA programs. Here is what Gordon Grice, MFA said:

“The main benefit of an MFA program is that it gives a writer a few years in which he’s allowed to write as his main occupation. You can learn a lot there, but the learning mostly happens because you’re reading a lot of books and forcing yourself to write. Those same techniques will work outside the academy… writing is writing, and a lot of the distinctions academics draw are artificial.

Don’t get me wrong. Being with other writers in a concerted endeavor can be a great and life-changing experience. It may even be a good learning experience. But its success depends more on the teacher, the other students, and the attitude of the writer than it does on the specifics of the plan.”

So, I will continue to learn by the seat of my pants, write and submit, submit, submit.

Signed, Ms Moses.

MOPT II- The Second Half of the Story~

Undeterred by our previous failure to obtain our licenses in a single visit, and truthfully I can’t think of anything is this country that we’ve ever accomplished in one visit if it has to do with an agency of the Costa Rican government, Alan and I forged on.

Last week it was necessary to go to San José, partly to buy some things we needed for the house, and partly to retain our sanity in the face of this ongoing lawsuit with the neighbors.

We decided–or rather I decided–, as it was on our way, we’d give the old licenses a try again. Approaching the MOPT/COVESI offices, I had the resolve of a conditioned marathon runner. I would prevail despite all the odds against me. And, after all, we had our receipts from the bank.

I have come to agree with Adam Gopnik, who, in his wonderful book, Paris to the Moon, describes the average Parisian’s encounter with the never-ending bureaucracies, which invade daily life. He says, “Each Ministry is a bit like a Nautilus machine, designed to give maximum resistance to your efforts, only to give way just at the moment of total mental failure.”

Battling with the bureaucracies provide a common ritual enjoyed by enthusiasts of modern health spas. About once a month or so one of us is forced to engage in an activity that is mildly stressful, forces us in close proximity with total strangers engaged in the same act, and ends with a sense of exhilaration if the goals are met, or a realization that we must work harder to accomplish our goals should we fail. A workout.

We arrived at the MOPT offices in Limón at 8 A.M. sharp. That’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years: either be the first in line or manage to get yourself inside the doors (so they can’t shut them in front of you) within a half-hour of lunch or quitting time and you are bound get service quite quickly. We were first in line.

This time it was a jovial black woman who spoke the Caribbean singsong English I so love to hear, “Is what I tellin’ ya, da’ling. You’s got to go to the doctor and get a physical. But make sure you tell dem is far a driver’s license only, you hear?” her lilting voice was matched by a smiling face. Where to get the physical, I wondered.

“You know de Methodis’ charch in Limón?” I did, so that was fortunate.

“Go on up thar pas’ that, and… oh, cien meters farther is a carner. You know it?” I said I did. What is the point in questioning her? I felt as though someone had added another ten-pound weight on the Nautilus machine, but I was determined. I would simply scour the entire area or ask someone when we got closer to the scene.

“Okay, turn thar and go on up maybe 25 meters. You find him thar. Name is Coto; Dr. Coto.” This is where Costa Rican directions get tricky. It’s the “turn there” and the “on up” that defy actual directions, but never mind. I felt I could find it.

“So, I guess we’ll do that when we get back from San José,” Alan said casually as we got in the truck.

“No. I can feel it. We can get this done. We’re not in any hurry are we? Hell, we can spend the night here if we want.” Alan knows better than to argue with me when I’m this focused.

We drove the five miles back to Limón and found he Methodist church and the corner and the office. I went in to ask if they could take us right away while Alan parked the truck.

“Por supuesto,” said the friendly clerk. “The doctor is on his way in and he’ll take you first.” Of course he would take us first. What a racket. It cost us the equivalent of $50 dollars for a blood pressure check, height, weight, and one line on the eye chart (somewhere between two or three lines of normal). Oh, and he asked in passing if I could hear him all right. That was the hearing test. I paid and we were set to leave.

“You see these two boxes, here?” The receptionist asked, pointing at two empty squares on the medical exam form. “You need to go to the bookstore (one block up) and buy the stamps for this, otherwise it’s no good.” Another five pounds of resistance was stacked on the machine.

The bookstore she referred to had closed a year ago, according to the black man standing in front of it, “But you can buy the stamps from a lady what sell them up by the bank. Not in the bank, in front.” Another 1000 Colones.

Back to MOPT, and still there was no line at the window. The jovial black woman was still there. I handed all documents through the window and she nodded approvingly as she punched our information into the computer.

“Go wait over there,” she said pointing to a row of chairs filled with other lost souls. Alan and I went over and leaned against the wall like sweaty athletes toward the end of a long workout.

About five minutes later a very nice lady who spoke only Spanish ushered us into her office ahead of all the others. I asked, tentatively if we were cutting in line.

“Oh, no. There are all waiting to take their driver’s tests.” Well thank the motor vehicle gods for that small favor. She also told us in passing that people from San José often come here to get their licenses renewed because it is so quick here.

She sat us down, took our pictures, and created brand new shiny driver’s licenses that will expire February 07, 2013– just long enough for me to forget how to go about the renewal process.

MOPT- Half of the Story~

“Yes, this is the right office, but you must go to the Banco Nacional and pay 10,000 colones each before I can renew these driver’s licenses,” said the nice man behind the glass partition separating us. “And anyway, our system is down right now. I won’t be able to do anything for you today.”

This was something new; not the fact that the system was down, that was common enough. It was the fact that he told me about it so I didn’t make a second trip after paying at the bank that was so remarkable. This, in my estimation, is real progress and I told him so.

“Thank you so much for telling me.”

“Con mucho gusto,” he replied as we left the MOPT office.

Alan and I had been eyeing at our driver’s licenses for the past month, aware that they would need to be renewed this month, with the same anticipation as an upcoming colonoscopy.

It was our first trip to the MOPT (the equivalent of the DMV) office outside Limon. Finding it had been no simple task. We asked in town and were directed out past the prison, and further out beyond the truck yards, where containers were stacked like oversized Legos, and finally behind the bus yards for TRACASA, through a chain link gate with the rusted and barely visible sign reading MOPT, to ultimately find the transportation department offices.

We bounced our way over the rough gravel entrance and finally arrived at a group of rundown buildings that used to be blue. Out back was a chain link fence surrounding the impounded vehicles like some vehicular gulag. We parked and walked to the building entrance where we found the familiar socialistic line of people standing idly, leaning against anything vertical for support, most of them twiddling their cellular phones.

“Is this the line?” I asked the woman in the tight black lyrca pants at the end, to which I received a jutted jaw as she pointed with her lips toward the inside of the building. We entered the grubby office and found two windows, both without any line in front of them. Surely it couldn’t be this easy.

It wasn’t.

The man in the first cubicle informed me that I needed to speak to the gentleman behind the second window, who was idle as well. It was this man who told me about the failed system and the bank.

In the old days–a mere ten years ago– they would never have given us the secondary information. It was as though they got some morbid glee out of making a person make multiple trips to get anything done. I believe Franz Kafka took his training in places like this.

We left and drove the five miles back to Limon to pay the fee at the bank. The line stretched down the block as people waited for the bank to open. I realized it was not only a Monday, but also the first of the month and we were going to be hours waiting for people to get their pensions, make their weekly deposits and whatever other business they felt the need to conduct.

Ah, another dead-end in one of the many labyrinthine routes to a fairly innocuous chore. I left and we went about getting other chores done. It then occurred to me that perhaps our own bank, the Banco de Costa Rica, might have an account with MOPT and we went to that bank. Same deal, but I persevered and entered. I went to one of the ubiquitous armed guards that are in every bank and increasingly in every business that handles cash.

“Hi. Can you tell me if the bank has an account with MOPT. I need to pay for my license renewal.” I said, giving him my best smile.

“Let me see your license.” I handed him my driver’s license.

“You can’t renew this now. It’s not expired yet. See, the expiration date is on the 13th. Come back on the 14th.”

“Sir, the license will be expired by then and the police will give us a ticket. I just need to know if the bank has an account with MOPT” I could feel my jaw getting tight. Try to smile, I reminded myself.

“Here is the telephone number, you have to make an appointment.” Defeated I left with the phone number.

On the way home I called the number he had given me using my cell phone. No, I did not need an appointment; I could go directly to the MOPT office. Yes, I could pay at the bank.

We went home stopping off at our local branch office and paid for our renewal. It was during this transaction that I learned I could have done this online myself and the name of the agency was COSEVI not MOPT. Oh, well.

We were half way to being renewed: We had receipts showing we had paid, but still had expired licenses.

(to be continued)

Dot to Dot~

A writer friend has a blog entry about “narrative arc,” in memoir. While I am not writing memoir (at the moment) I do see what he is angling after when talking about writing essays that string together to tell a linear story.

His point was, I think, that when events cause us to change at a certain age we do not need to remind readers of these events in every essay throughout the book, but, rather, we need to see growth from that starting point to a completed person or, at least, a more reflective person by the end of the book. That is the difference between stand-alone essay and narrative arc essays.

I am reading David Sedaris’ Naked at the moment and I think the same could be said of that memoir. Each essay can stand alone, but all link together to form an amalgam of the person as he grows up.

The other interesting thing I have been thinking about recently, and this reflects back to one of the best books written on the subject of story as far as I’m concerned, Jon Franklin’s, Writing for Story, is backstory and story. In it, Franklin talks about backstory, or what the piece is really about, which can be quite different than the surface story.

So, if we want the reader to connect the dots of the backstory we must carefully draw them in a pattern that can be easily followed. But whether the reader interprets the message the same way we intended or not would be up to each individual. To me this makes for a much more fulfilling essay than one that is a clear message, tidily wrapped up with a bow on top.

As my UCLA instructor, Gordon Grice, recently said: “And here’s an interesting phenomenon: Sometimes a reader sees a meaning in your work you didn’t know about at all, but which immediately strikes you as true. This is possible because the story itself knows more than you do, contains many possibilities.

Sometimes the reader discovers things in your story that strike you as great revelations about yourself. This is perhaps the biggest pay-off a writer ever gets. And it can only happen if you haven’t closed off the discussion in advance by nailing the meaning down to your own special theory.”

Backstory in Nonfiction~

This month Brevity has an excellent craft essay by Phillip Gerard on truth in nonfiction or, more accurately, backstory in nonfiction. He tells the tale of himself as a cub reporter being sent to the local high school to get a “hero story” about a boy who saved his girlfriend from a burning car. He gets the story and his first front page byline. His career is launched. He is proud.

Years later he discovers quite by accident that he only got part of the story because of questions he failed to ask at the scene of the heroic rescue. It turned out, ironically enough, that the boy had actually locked his girlfriend in the car during a squabble, set the fire to the vehicle, and then, having second thoughts, pulled her to safety. Quite a different story than the first version.

What a great story Gerard tells at his own expense. And what a great reminder to those of us who write nonfiction that the story we perceive is not always the actual truth.

I am in the process of trying to tell a long and incredibly intricate tale of a land-deal-gone-bad in a foreign country. I am all too aware that many of the facts of this case are presented from my point of view and, as such, are inherently flawed. I know Mr. Gerard is right in his main point in this essay: backstory drives present action.

Gerard goes on to say:

Sometimes the facts do indeed point to an obvious story. But more often there is a larger true thing, a Big Fact, behind the Facts of the Case. It is this fact behind the facts that determines the meaning of all the other facts, creates a context for interpreting what our eyes are seeing and what our informants are telling us, and dictates the true syntax of a story.

For every story, like every sentence, has a syntax: a dynamic architectural cohesion that determines meaning, based on three qualities that every word in a sentence has—as does every element of a story:

1. Sequence: in what order the elements are arranged, and where in that sequence any particular element fits.

2. Priority: the importance of any element relative to other elements.

3. Relationship: a special connection to each other element and to the story as a whole.

This, then, is the driving force behind any good narrative, isn’t it? It is the deeper truth we search for and discovering it requires more exploration than simply the surface facts.

He concludes by holding all of us who write nonfiction accountable for knowing the difference. Indeed.

Online Writing Classes~

I’ve taken my fair share of online writing classes. Some of them have been worth it, but most of them not. The best of them have been given by UCLA Extension. At least the last one I took got me a published piece, and the payout on it more than paid for the class. So there is that.

The one I am currently enrolled in seems to fall into the positive category. The class is titled: Intermediate Nonfiction and is taught by Gordon Grice. The idea is to generate about 30 pages of “completed nonfiction.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I am at least feeling the pressure of generating about a 1000 words a day. Some people are writing a series of essays, like me, while others a section of memoir.

Today was a 2500 word essay about a Kingfisher I saw on the beach this morning and a memory of one I saw in my youth. It is far from complete but the bones are there. Now I have to go back and figure out the reason why I wrote what I did. I know there is a message in there lurking; I just haven’t found it yet. Isn’t it the way with writing essays?

I have a mere 26 more pages of writing to go before the revisions start next month. I might be a bit absent in the weeks to come; the writing is coming (at least today) and I don’t like to interupt it.

The class ends at the end of March, but I’ll post ideas and parts of essays as they come up.

An Ode to the Cliché~

In honor of the Lake Superior State University Banished Words List for 2008.

Back in the day I was just a wordsmith (wordsmyth, if you prefer) who didn’t know a cliché when I saw one. The tipping point came after several people pointed out to me how I used clichés like a truck farmer uses seeds. The surge of complaints from readers created a perfect storm, and I discovered to my chagrin that my writing had become, at best, subprime.

In a perfect world I could have avoided all these words, but they came so naturally to me. Finally, I realized I would need to improve to surpass the 2.0 (two point oh, if you prefer) brand of writing I was turning out. I had to move beyond the norm and push my prose forward toward the cutting edge of the craft.

That being said, it was a lot harder than I thought. It required me to begin thinking outside the box, and, here’s the thing, it became rather problematic when I discovered that I couldn’t write a sentence without a cliché in it to save my life. But, be that as it may, I was determined to make things right. After all, I want my writing up there with the best, to be sold to the best publications not just the low hanging fruit of the industry.

I believe I can create a game plan for my own empowerment so I can achieve these goals. Money is no object, so I’m seeking help from anyone who might have some insights for me. And, in the long view, I feel I will be able to elevate my writing so that I am not simply writing pieces that are singing from the same hymn sheet, but, instead, pieces that actually resonate with the reader.

I’m ready to approach the situation in a new way. Let me turn it on its head in order that my writing becomes more full and frank, because, at the end of the day, only writing that is truly robust will become state-of-the-art.

So, going forward, I have made a pact with myself; the check is in the mail. It will happen. Unless…

Am I missing something here? .

An Accidental Writer~

I have been busy with visiting family and, of course, the quarrelsome neighbors. It is reported that Paul Newman has a sign above his fireplace that reads “Everyone that comes here brings happiness: some by coming and some by leaving.” My neighbors fit into the latter category, my brother and his wife definitely the former.

But on with the blog and my subject for today.

I think I’m an accidental writer. I never thought consciously to myself, I’m going to be a writer. My daughter, who is one, knew that is what she wanted to do since she was about ten-years-old. She did several things in between but has returned to that vocation in her thirties as a reporter for AP..

And I never thought, I have a great story to tell. It sort of crept up on me in an odd way. As many of you know my husband and I moved to Costa Rica. At first we spent six months here and six months working in the States to pay our bills. Call us slackers or call us lazy if you want, but we wanted an interesting and full life before retirement, when, it occurred to us, we might be too old to enjoy it. It also crossed our minds that we might not even make it to any official retirement age–life being an unsure gamble. So we went.

In the course of our time here I began writing to family and friends back “home,” although after several years of living here, “here” began to feel more like home than “home.” These emails of mine began to evolve into regular chapters of our lives, building a house and the many trials and tribulations of living in a foreign country. I now have over 100,000 words of memories filed away.

Now comes the question: what to I do with all this material?

I think one of the most difficult things to do, as a writer, is find the central theme to a book. I have a feeling this is true regardless of whether one is writing fiction or nonfiction. What is the trunk from which all the branches of the story grow? I find I have an enormous pile of branches and a ton of leaves, but as of yet I have not figured out the trunk of the story.

This has not deterred me from continuing to write, which is a good thing. And perhaps the message will be delivered to me in an epiphany someday, a bit like the Magi, but I doubt it. And “Epiphany” is a pretty lofty word to be throwing around here. Perhaps the word “insight” would be better. As I read recently: “‘Epiphany’ is not the sort of word that one hears on ESPN or reads in the New York Times. If you were to tell a friend, ‘I had an epiphany,’ he or she might reply, ‘My Uncle Ralph had one of those, too, but his doctor removed it and he’s doing fine now.’ ‘Epiphany’ means ‘an appearance’ or ‘something revealed.’ An angelic visitation would be considered an epiphany. The car keys you misplaced after last year’s office party would not.”

Okay, so I suppose I could use the word epiphany here, but insight will do for now. And getting back to my point, if it’s anything like the rest of writing, what I am dead sure of is that it will require hard work and perseverance on my part; seeing past the individual pieces to some greater whole, a bit like the alphabet from found objects.

A Little Bite, Please~

The puffed up cop leaned against our pickup holding the expired registration and Alan’s driver’s license.

Casting his eyes toward heaven he said, “Huy, putchica.”

I guess the best translation for this is, “Ouch, life sucks.” Literally it’s more like “Ouch, little whore,” and they use it for all sorts of occasions the way we use, son of a bitch.

But I knew exactly what he was telling me.

It was a first for me. Almost twenty years living here and I’ve never paid what they call chorizo— sometimes called mordida, which I think says it better– for anything.

Mordida, the little bite. It says it all.

In a communally idiotic decision, the Costa Rican government decided that all license plate stickers, or marchamos, would be due in December of every year. I’m sure this was decided back at the turn of the twentieth century when there were all of 500 cars in the entire country. This means that a person must pay for their stickers in December or they will be faced with fines, or worse, removal of their license plates until the fees are paid.

This necessitated all of us stand in line at a local and, I might add, rare government office where these stickers were available. Last year, miracle of miracles, the Internet made its appearance in the country as a viable tool for a bureaucratically bogged down system. I paid for my marchamos online and they were sent to our post office box. ¡Que facile!

I paid for ours online again this year on the fifteenth of December and haven’t seen our stickers yet.

We had to go to the capital, San Jose, to buy tires for the car. A slow leak in the right rear tire has made it plain that it was time. We waited until after the New Year, checked the Post office–no hay marchamos. We drove to Limon and stopped off at the local Institute de Nacional Seguros office (INS).

There, I was just able to wedge my way in, pressed against the wall by a horde of dejected marchamo seekers and asked the guard about getting a verification of payment for my Internet receipt, which I waved in his face. He managed to risk life and limb and asked the clerk about my request, returning with the sad news that I would need to take a fecha and wait my turn.

We decided to take the risk and made it as far as Siquirres, where we met our chesty little cop. I showed him our receipt, proving we had paid for the marchamos and I explained about how it wasn’t our fault they had not arrived yet. He was unimpressed. According to him unless a lawyer notarized the receipt, it was no good. I suggested that he let us go and we would find a lawyer in Siguirres to notarize the paper.

“But they will charge you 12,000 Colones for that,” He said.

“That’s fine,” I countered.

“If I give you a ticket, it will cost you 16,000 Colones and you’ll have to come to court here in Siquirres on January 14th.”

“Then, let me go and we’ll go get the notary.”

This is when he rolled his eyes toward heaven and uttered the comment about little whores or how tough life can be. At this point I opened my wallet where he could see a 5000 Colone bill- about ten dollars.

He threw the receipt through the window onto my lap, but retained the registration and Alan’s license as collateral, and said, “Go get it attended to.”

I handed the five thousand to him and he handed the documents back to me.

Just a little bite.

We finally found an INS office in San Jose this afternoon that wasn’t too crowded. It was also one hour before their closing time and they were processing paperwork like bookies. I was in and out in fifteen minutes with our new registration and window sticker for 2008.

Huy, putchica, another year done. We have to have the car’s annual mechanical check in March…

The Winter Solstice~

Call me a pagan or call me a true believer. Today is the winter solstice, the day to worship light in the northern hemisphere. December 22, 2007 is the shortest day of the year, the longest night.

My parents were married on the solstice 67 years ago and took a lot of ribbing from their friends for their choice of nights to marry.

On the winter solstice the sun begins its northern migration and brings with it that oh so precious commodity, light. The sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, and at midday its elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the solstice. The ancients believed that on this date the sun and the moon stopped their flight across the heavens and the sun was reborn of the goddess.

It is the oldest winter celebration in the world. Ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun rebirth, and, over 4,000 years ago, the Irish built a tomb designed to allow light in only during the solstice. Christian religions have incorporated the rituals in the hopes of converting the Olde Believers and those traditions are still celebrated today as Christmas. The Yule log, wreathes, stars on the tops of Christmas tress, even the tree itself are all symbols of the former solstice celebration.

But I did not know, until recently, that this is where the Yin Yang symbol came from that is so often seen in the Buddhist traditions.

Ancient Chinese scholars discovered changes in the year associated with the sun (Yang) and the moon (Yin). They used an 8-foot pole and the shadow of the constellation The Big Dipper to establish the position of the sun in different seasons. They also established the number of days in a year, and through elaborate calendars established the vernal, and autumnal equinox, as well as the summer and winter solstice. Using a circular calendar and shading in the summer and winter months the yin yang sign emerges.It is often seen with a small dot in at the top and bottom of the symbol; this indicates the winter and summer solstice.

So, whether you are pagan, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, it is a day of celebration of the renewal of life, a circle of continued rebirth.