Friday, September 28, 2012

Writing About Wanting to Write (But Not Being Able To)

“Writing about a writer's block is better than not writing at all.” -- Charles Bukowski

There are very few times where I actually find myself encountering writer's block.

Apparently, the entire month of September is one of those "very few times."

What's funny is that I legitimately want to write. I'd be cliché and say that it was all I ever wanted to do, but that's not entirely true. From the time I was in fourth grade until I entered seventh grade, I wanted to be a naturalist. Okay, I'll admit it -- I was kind of obsessed with Jeff Corwin and his show that was on Disney Channel at the time. Until 2001, I was convinced that I wanted to travel the world, studying plants and animals just like he did. And then, something changed.

I spent the first thirteen years of my life living in Pennsylvania. Let me clarify: I spent the first thirteen years of my life living in a small town in Pennsylvania. The middle school that I attended spanned from fourth to eighth grade, with the upper level classrooms located on the opposite end of the school from the fourth and fifth graders. In seventh grade, each student took two separate classes: English and Writing. To this day, I still don't know exactly why they were two separate classes, but I couldn't be more thankful that they were. Miss DeNicoula was my Writing teacher, and it was because of her class that I fell in love with writing.

I mean, granted, I was a kid so the work that I created was pretty terrible. But honestly, I had motivation. I had dedication to my work. And I had a passion for it. From that year forward, I knew that I wanted to become a writer someday. I wanted to practice my craft, to hone it, and to constantly get better. My parents, quite frankly, were always very supportive of me. The same can't be said for some of my other friends. The first girl who befriended me when I moved to Florida, for example, wanted to become a photographer. And she could have been very good, had she taken the proper classes in college and been trained. Her mother did not believe that photography would be a suitable career choice for her daughter, so she convinced my friend to become a speech pathologist instead, and just enjoy photography on the side.

I don't know what I would have done if my parents had felt the same way. If they had said: "Well, Jennifer, writing is great but... you'll never make a career out of it. It's good for a hobby, but you need to find something that will make you marketable. Why not study medicine instead?" And I'm sure that there are times they probably wanted to encourage me toward a more "marketable" career path. But they also saw how much I enjoyed writing and the passion I had for it.

So, while most high school students had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives, I went through my classes knowing that I wanted to major in English in college. I took Honors classes throughout high school until I could take AP English Language my junior year. That was the first class that really challenged me when it came to writing. I clearly remember our summer reading novels (The Great Gatsby and The Things They Carried), as well as going to class the first day of my junior year, eager to learn about literature -- just dying to dissect poems and stories for their deeper meaning. It was a good class, taught by an adorable elderly woman named Dr. Warner, and at the end of the year, I learned more about writing. I ended up a bit disappointed, however, when I only received a 3 on my AP Exam.

My senior year of high school was full of applying for colleges, and I was eager to take three AP classes that year -- AP Psychology (if I ever went back to school and majored in anything besides English, this is what I would consider because I am fascinated with psychology), AP Environmental Science (the teacher for the class was and is hysterical), and AP Literature. AP Literature was taught by Charlotte Roberts, a teacher that everyone in the years preceding classified as tough, but great. And truly, she was the best high school teacher I ever had. She challenged us to become better writers AND readers of literature. The year that I graduated, her passing percentage for her students on their AP exams was a 95%. Needless to say, she was fantastic at what she did, and you could tell how much she enjoyed it. In her class, I learned that happy "great" literature rarely existed, and that you could dissect most poems and short stories so that their central theme was death (cheery class, no?). I ended up returning to her class during fall break of my freshman year of college and deconstructed poems with her classes. It was great. And SHE was great. Which is why I was thrilled when I received my first and only 5 on the AP Literature exam that year.

As my friends packed up their lives in cardboard boxes and headed to college, I ventured to West Palm Beach my freshman year to attend Palm Beach Atlantic University. It was there that I met some amazing people, had grand adventures, and also met David Athey, who was my Introduction to Creative Writing professor. I can't express how much Professor Athey taught me during the two years that I had him. He helped me to refine my writing, to make it better, and -- moreover -- to make it ME. To make it sound like me and embody my voice. During my second year with him, I took his Advanced Writing Workshop, which consisted of a class of about ten students (I went to a small, private school). In the class, we wrote poems and short stories, and had our classmates and professor give us constructive feedback. It was my first workshop experience, which really allowed me to learn how to take criticism. Because the truth is that good friends will tell you that they love your writing. GREAT friends will tell you that they love your writing, but will also explain how you can improve it.

One of the things that Athey encouraged -- and actually expected -- was for each of us to submit two or three pieces of writing to a literary journal somewhere in the country. It was because of this that I got my first poem published in a journal called Words. It was also during this year that Professor Athey appointed me as one of the co-editors of the school's literary journal, Living Waters Review. It was my first look into the process behind making a journal, and I discovered that a lot went into it. Alongside my other two co-editors, we sorted through submissions and determined which pieces would go into the journal’s issue and which would be rejected. From that experience and the internships that would follow, I learned not to take rejections too seriously. Because, chances were, twenty-something year old interns like me were sending automated rejection e-mails en masse to people.

Being a part of Living Waters Review was one of the best experiences of my college career. Professor Athey was also probably the best professor I had ever had. But sadly, all good things came to an end when I transferred from Palm Beach Atlantic University back home to the University of Central Florida in my junior year of college. There, I declared a slightly different major. In West Palm, my college only had the option of becoming an English major, but what – like I said earlier – I was really passionate about was writing. Thus, when I enrolled at UCF, I declared an English major with a Creative Writing track (and a minor in Mass Communication which… well, apart from a few Advertising and Public Relations classes really didn’t do that much for me).

I became a part of The Cypress Dome, UCF’s student-driven literary journal, and during my senior year took an online internship with The Adirondack Review, and published my first (short) book critique with them. Throughout my two years at UCF, I had a lot of professors, but only one really memorable one – Peter Telep. Professor Telep was a screenwriter (he’d written spec scripts and an episode of "The Sopranos"), but taught Creative Writing for English Majors, which was my first introduction to a larger-scale workshop setting. Professor Telep taught us to express ourselves through our writing, but also to think outside of the box – to become a little uncomfortable and try new things. So I experimented with different styles of poetry and prose than I was used to. I guess it paid off because one of my more “experimental” poems that I wrote as an assignment for class ended up being published in The Anemone Sidecar later that year!

I stuck to poetry and fiction throughout my two years at UCF, and took workshops accordingly. As I advanced, the classes got smaller and smaller, to the point where I was in a classroom of eleven during my Advanced Poetry Workshop my senior year. It was comfortable and enjoyable and challenging – I’ll never quite get used to workshops, really. I believe strongly in editing and revising work, but (with poetry) it’s difficult for me to sit and listen to others critique words that I worked so tirelessly to weave together. Of course, this is the plight of the writer, and I know I’m not alone.

I graduated with a degree in English last year, and was fortunate enough to find a job at a small company in Orlando to work for – one where I loved the co-workers and had a great boss. But… something was amiss. I wasn’t really doing what I loved. I was (and still am) doing technical things with software and programs. I was developing online courses, and the full-time aspect of the job began to wear on me. I knew I had to find an outlet somehow.

And that’s when I decided to start the blog that you are currently reading. As an avid fan of the show "Community," I thought it would be fun to write episodic reviews, if only for my own eyes. What I really didn’t anticipate in my wildest dreams was to have Dan Harmon read and praise one of my reviews. Honestly, the thought never even crossed my mind that he would see, let alone like, my work. It feels weird to be validated by someone you’ve never met – someone who literally put the very show YOU love into existence. But weird in a good way. Like, in a small, insignificant way, it means that I matter. (And then to have Megan Ganz read a review of mine and compliment it was just the icing on a really, REALLY good tasting cake.)

Of course, as much as I really do enjoy writing about "Community," my first love will always be writing poetry and prose. And, ironically, when I began my college career, I always assumed I’d be more interested in writing short stories – in publishing a novel, someday. And while that is still a goal of mine (whenever I get the inspiration for a best-selling story), I’ve found myself drawn more and more over the years to writing poetry. I never thought of myself as a poet. But somehow, I became one.

This year, I set out on my latest and grandest adventure yet – self-publishing my first book of poetry titled Love Letter. It’s a rather short anthology, consisting of about thirty or so poems. But these are poems that I am rather proud of – ones that have meant something to me throughout the years. Some are full of hope, some rather depressing (sorry for that, guys), and some are just winsome. But all of the poems share a common theme: love. Each of the narrators learns the meaning of love, for better or for worse, throughout the poems. Sometimes, the picture they receive isn’t beautiful – sometimes it’s broken and messy and dark. But I’d like to think that, even in those dark circumstances, the absence of love in their lives brings about hope – the hope that real love exists in its purest form, and it’s a matter of waiting for or finding it.

I’ve accumulated a lot of poems over the years, to be honest, and not all of them are wonderful. In my first year of college, I tried my hand at poetry. And I mean, I really tried. What I discovered was that I tried too hard. The words that spilled out onto the page weren’t mine – they were contrived and sometimes cliché and forced, rather than natural and sometimes-messy. But there are two poems that I’m quite proud of and – because you all are such faithful readers of this blog – I’ll post a poem that (when reading aloud in my workshop) nearly made me cry. The poem is in Love Letter (which you can purchase on Amazon, by the way!), and is titled “Mason Jar.”


She hadn’t packed yet, just wouldn’t, stamped a foot, flat-
out refused. Her fingers wound around blades of grass,
                     and she tugged, ripping them from the ground.
                     She’d take them with her, in a jar, so that the fireflies,
they’d have some food on the trip down south.
And as she crossed state lines, she shook the jam jar, and the
                     golden rim rattled along with the gravel roads.

But before she reached North Carolina, they were dead,
                    little fallen comrades, “I Spy” companions, and night-
lights. Now there was a Ramada, and a Hilton, and a scratchy blanket.
And she kicked it off and sat upright in bed and
                                          dripped with sweat, because it was July.
                                          The air conditioner rattled, spat out must, and Mama snored.

During the day, the suitcases opened their mouths, swallowed new belongings,
                     an alligator t-shirt for her,
                     a neon yellow sundress for Mama,
                     socks and flip-flops and toothbrushes and underwear to replace
what was left behind in their hurried packing.

Mama didn’t cry herself to sleep anymore.
                     She just drove and drove, and her eyes stayed dry,
                     and her arms weren’t black and purple,
because there was no more screaming, and no more sirens–
just singing.

“It’ll be all right, baby.”
“It’ll be all right.”

Even though they were dead, the fireflies sang from the hotel balconies,
                     and the greasy fast-food chains,
                     and the new apartment in Florida where Daddy could never go.

So maybe I’ll never be a poet laureate, and maybe I won’t even be a best-selling author. But I’ll always, in my heart, be a writer. And now that you all know where I’ve been, I hope you stick around for the remainder of the journey! ;)

1 comment:

  1. Aw. I loved reading your story. Hopefully you'll get past your writer's block soon cause I miss reading your stuff. Ahem.

    Also, that poem was lovely. I do have so much respect for poets cause poetry is something I could NEVER get a grasp on.