Reflections on Writing studies at the MA in English and Writing program

During my time at Western New Mexico University’s MA in Interdisciplinary Studies, I studied English and Writing. I took courses in American literature; literary theories; ancient and medieval literature; Romantic and Victorian poetry; the Enlightenment; memoir writing; screenwriting; fiction and creative non-fiction writing. When I first started the program, my main intention was to study fiction writing. However, I quickly noticed the impact that literary analyses had on my development as a writer, and decided to enroll in additional courses in American literature, and studied American humor, the American novel, and the American West. Furthermore, as I learned more about the study of literature, I developed an interest in literary theory as well as other literary genres and periods including Romantic and Victorian poetry, Greek drama, ancient and medieval literature, and the Enlightenment. As a result of my experiences in the program, I am no longer interested only in American fiction, but also in the contemporary novel across American, British, Canadian, Australian, and other English speaking literatures.

This portfolio consists of all major creative work that I had written during the program. It contains four short stories and a novella; three of the short stories have already appeared in print, and the rest have been be submitted to a number of literary journals and magazines. The portfolio is organized according to the order in which the stories were written in order to reflect my progress as a writer at WNMU.

In the fall of 2010, I took my first two writing classes ever, and started working on what became my first publication, “The Silence of a Death.” The story is about a couple trapped in an unhappy marriage. Their entrapment was inspired by the material that I developed in the memoir writing class. I got the idea to use magical realism to represent the couple’s feelings from an exercise that I completed in the screenwriting course. The story was published by The Nevada Review in spring 2011.

I did not take any courses at WNMU the following semester due to other obligations, but was inspired to continue my development as a fiction writer. I spent spring of 2011 studying Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, a book that was recommended by one of my professors.The book opened up my world to how certain writing techniques elicit particular outcomes. It talked about process and craft, and provided examples and explanations from classic short stories, novels, and essays. LaPlante showed me that good writing does not come by chance, and that learning certain techniques could improve my writing tremendously.

Using LaPlante’s book for guidance, I wrote and polished eight flash fiction stories. One of those stories became the 600-word story, “The Other Mrs. Pfeiffer,” found in this portfolio. “The Other Mrs. Pfeiffer” explores a middle-aged woman’s struggle with her weight, and with the discovery that her ex-husband’s new wife is expecting a baby. This was the first narrative in which I tried to tell a story on multiple levels: one story on the surface and another using the characters’ memories. “The Other Mrs. Pfeiffer” was published by Canada’s Lost in Thought Magazine in 2011. In England last summer, I listened to stories on the radio, and discovered audio literature for the first time. In summer of 2012, I took a class on literary theory and analyzed a flash fiction story by Tanya Hershman, My Mother was an Upright Piano, that is available both in print and in audio form. As a result, I discovered that flash fiction works just as well as an audio recording as poetry does, since the audio factor gives flash stories more texture, making them more memorable. Hershman’s story inspired me to transform “The Other Mrs. Pfeiffer” into a recording that will be published by Chicago’s Word Play Sound, an audio magazine, this September.

“Missing” was my first foray into traditional length short story writing, and it went through more drafts and revisions than any other story up to that point. When I started it in the summer of 2011, I was struggling with the basics of storytelling. I felt like I could see the final product in my head, but did not have the proper tools to construct it. I wanted every creative decision to be made on purpose and went back to LaPlante’s book and reread the section about a post-war French literary movement called OULIPO or Workshop of Potential Literature. “Contrary to what you might think, absolute freedom isn’t always beneficial to creativity. Instead, what psychologists and scientists are finding is that constraints or limits and choices are often more conducive to creativity than the blank page (or the empty computer screen)” (LaPlante 552). As Igor Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes the more one frees oneself of chains that shackle the spirit” (LaPlante 552).

The first constraint I imposed was simplicity in plot. I decided to write a story with the simplest plot possible so that I could peel away the layers and discover the essence of a story. This is the basic plot of “Missing”: an elderly woman goes to a bus stop, waits there, and comes back. The other constraints I imposed was to take out all ‘–ing’ verbs and replace all forms of the word ‘to have’ and ‘to be.’ These constraints produced a great draft with precise sentences. Even though I later went back and placed many of these words back in, the overall process helped me immensely in that I was finally beginning to make conscious craft decisions about my writing. The final version of the story saw the emergence of what I now see as some common themes in my writing: sub-plots and memory.The first complete draft of “Missing” was called “Nadezhda,” a Russian female name that also means hope. The story was rejected by approximately ten literary magazines, but it was quickly accepted after I Anglicized the main character’s name and changed the title, upon my husband’s suggestion. “Missing” was published in Magnolia: A Journal of Women’s Socially Engaged Literature Anthology Volume II, a prestigious and well recognized anthology edited by Karen Connelly, a widely published and well known Canadian writer, and Misty K. Ericson, writer and director of the Institute of Arts and Social Engagement.

During my creative non-fiction and fiction writing classes at WNMU, I started writing what eventually became “How to Laugh in the Desert,” my longest short story to date. The 5000-word story is about a climber who lives alone in the California desert, and tries to climb a peak he had fallen from before. Just like “Missing,” this story is also driven by memory in that, during the climb, the main character reminisces about his climbing partner who had enlisted in the military. The reasons for his friend’s enlistment are not revealed because the story is told from the climber’s perspective, and he does not know the reasons.

I worked on the story for four months during spring 2012. I work-shopped it at a writing fiction course at WNMU and at where I worked with Steven Ramirez, a widely published short story writer and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate. I initially made the mistake of revealing numerous characters’ thoughts at the same time, and both workshops helped me focalize and polish the story to what is today. Furthermore, while working on the story’s many drafts, I also read Josip Novakovch’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop in my fiction writing course, and a number of works on narratology including Alan Palmer’s Fictional Minds, Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds, and Monika Fludernik’s An Introduction to Narratology. As a result, I developed a better understanding of language and structures of literary works. In particular, I learned about free indirect discourse, a technique of revealing thoughts in third person character’s heads in past tense, and a number of other techniques. This research focused my writing efforts and allowed me to make deliberate decisions about the narrator, tense choices, and types of narration. As of today, “How to Laugh in the Desert” has been submitted to a number of literary journals both in America and abroad.

All of this work on language helped me in my literary analyses, and prepared me to methodically experiment with my writing. I was inspired by a number of essays in John D’Agata’s The Lost Origins of the Essay, a required text for the WNMU creative non-fiction course, and wrote a novella which is an accumulation of my creative writing efforts of the past two years. I wrote “Like Throwing Stones at the Moon” in the summer of 2012, and consciously decided on the narrator, researched disassociation, and played with notions of first and third-person narration. In this novella, lonely and sensitive Niles Duras walks around London reminiscing about losing his virginity with two women at a Los Angeles massage parlor, falling for an imaginary girl at a campground in northern California, and trying to embody the ideals of the American male in Montana. Niles, who occasionally detaches from his first-person identity and experiences the world as his third-person self, wants to keep his painful memories to himself, but the author, who wants Niles to tell the truth, won’t let him.  Playing with notions of fixed identities and static memories, this 18,400 word novella explores the rising tensions that form between the author and the main character. This work again explores memory in an effort to identify the difference between imagination and experience. Niles has a large imagination, and the tendency to fill in the blanks about what he does not know about the people he meets. Naturally, this way of being in the world leads to conflict between his reality and his imagination, making life difficult for him.

I came to WNMU with an exclusive interest in writing fiction and studying American literature. I am leaving the program with a well-developed palate, an interest in all aspects of literary studies, and a dedication to my writing.  Analyzing other writers’ language and narrative techniques in my critical essays, allowed me to apply those techniques to my own fiction, and develop my short stories into complete works. As a result, many of those stories have been published in literary journals, and my novella has been submitted to a couple of small publishers and the Paris Literary Prize competition.

The MAIS program fostered my interests in literature and gave me confidence to pursue my own writing. I am now expanding the novella into a full-length novel. I view my time here as only the beginning of my work in literary studies, and plan to continue my education at WNMU next year, with additional coursework in Shakespeare, the British novel, poetry writing, magazine writing, and play writing. Furthermore, my time at WNMU also inspired me to seriously consider pursuing a PhD in creative writing and/or literature.

Work Cited

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984. Print.

D’Agata, John. The Lost Origins of the Essay. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009. Print.

Fludernik, Monika. An Introduction to Narratology. London, UK: Routledge, 2009. Print.

LaPlante, Alice. The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Novakovch, Josip. Fiction Writer’s Workshop. 2nd Ed. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. Print.

Palmer, Alan. Fictional Minds. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Print.

*All stories in this portfolio are found (or forthcoming) on this blog

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