So I Finished My MFA

Back two summers ago (and Facebook reminded me with a photo I took of the dorm room I was staying in two years ago), I wrote a blog post where I discussed just getting started with this program here at Ashland University in Ohio. I talked then about how difficult it was to get started, to figure out what to write about, to discover my voice.

Well, it’s been two years and lots of writing. I ended up doing what I mentioned in my blog two years ago: “I’m experimenting right now with a series of essays talking about the whole process (and brilliance) of editing when it’s done well. I am thinking about tying in my research into the great editors (some of which I’ve begun doing on this blog) and extracting lessons from them.”

Indeed, that’s what I did. The final title of my thesis is Words with Friends: The Intimate Relationship Between Authors and Their Editors.

The struggles I faced in writing in the creative nonfiction genre were how to get a memoir out of my life as an editor and how to make that job an interesting read. As part of our study, we have to read similar books to help us understand the ways other writers approached what we are trying to do.

Without Bonnie Rough, I might still be wallowing in despair. She helped to create a coherency and shape that made the writing process that much smoother.

From my own reading, I learned that editors, as well as folks in other seemingly mundane jobs, could write memoirs. Reading the memoirs of book editors such as Diana Athill and Robert Gottlieb, of a copy editor at The New Yorker named Mary Norris, and even a house painter helped me to understand that the power of such a memoir lay in the presentation of needed information (with a balance, not too much) and the ever-present interesting anecdote.

Even so, as I wrote I kept wondering, Is this boring? How can I possibly keep my reader fascinated enough to keep turning pages? Is the tone right? Have I found my voice? I didn’t have famous names to drop or fame in my own right or the cachet of working for a publication such as The New Yorker, as did many of the editor memoir writers I read. What I did have, however, was knowledge and longevity in my field (editing and publishing), a passion for words, and an understanding and respect for the power of words. What I needed to do was share that knowledge (just enough, not too much) along with anecdotal stories to illustrate and entertain.

Joe Mackall, Tom Larson, and Steve Harvey honed the manuscript with me, asked the tough questions, and made me a better writer.

My theme is “the power of words.” Because words are so powerful, personal, and intimate, when we put our words into the world, we share a piece of ourselves. The special joy of being an editor is helping to shape words, sentences, paragraphs, and manuscripts by entering into that intimate space between the author and the work to help the author say what he or she really means to say. This requires a kind of familiarity and friendship with the words and the author.

I wanted to help my readers understand that if and when they enter the publishing world, the editors are generally there to be their best readers, their greatest encouragers, and their most strategic critics. The purpose is to help the writing be the best it can be—to help writers dig deeper, choose words carefully, and say what they really mean to say.

It’s all about the words.

Those powerful words.



So I’m Studying to Earn an MFA

This summer I began a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. In keeping with the advice that I give to my students in my Building Your Author Platform class (advice from Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work), I’m here to let you in on the process of being a student in an MFA low-residency program, teaching four classes at my university in the Professional Writing program, continuing to freelance, and attempting to have a life.

I chose a low-residency MFA program as that works best for my schedule. I do two weeks onsite for three summers with two years in between of online teaching, reading, writing, and discussing with a cohort of other writers in creative nonfiction, completing in summer 2017. I chose Ashland University’s program in Ohio because of its reputation and  faculty–some of whom I knew from my Master’s program at Ball State. My first two-week stint was this past July.

Note from my journal: “Now I know what my students feel when I hand them a syllabus. Today I went into syllabus shock when I was given the outline for my fall semester. But I know enough to breathe deeply. I can do this. Take the elephant one bite at a time.”

Thought: “Where does the Master in Master of Fine Arts come from? How does anyone truly master the craft of writing? I think the point is that I will spend two intense years studying this craft and creating something from that study. That’s what will allow me to take the title of master. I hope I can live up to it.”

The focus of my program is to create a thesis–a creative work, a book–by the end of my two years. I am in creative nonfiction, so we talked a lot about essays and memoirs and writing that is true, real, and genuine. We talked about the works of wonderful nonfiction writers like Annie Dillard and Mary Karr and Philip Lopate and Lee Martin (some of these folks also write fiction). We talked about spirituality in writing–how to talk about that inner spiritual life. We studied how memoirists have to write from various viewpoints–who they are now, who they were then, who they are reflecting on who they were, and who they have become based on how those two persons relate.

I’ve been told in this first semester to experiment with my voice, to see where my writing takes me. Part of my problem, however, is that I’ve spent so many years editing and working in other people’s voices that I’m still trying to find my own.

Note from my journal: “It helps me to have a focus, a direction, for my writing. Ah, the age-old question: What should I write about?”

I’m experimenting right now with a series of essays talking about the whole process (and brilliance) of editing when it’s done well. I am thinking about tying in my research into the great editors (some of which I’ve begun doing on this blog) and extracting lessons from them. And maybe I’ll think about what lessons I learn in the editing process that pertain to life. (Such as, “What if God took this rough draft of my life, marked it up with a red pen, and gave me a do-over? What would I do differently? And would I want to do that? The changes I make to my past will affect the future that I do not yet know.”)

I know. Deep.

So that’s a glimpse into my MFA musings. Right now I need to write a review of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. (If you haven’t read it, drop everything and do it now. It’s a short book that will leave you stunned and amazed. You don’t even need to know that he wrote the book by “transcribing” to a writer by way of eye blinks since he was completely immobile. Read #2 in this list for more about that.)

So I have a paper to write about the structure and voice of this book, the narrator’s persona and his reflections on his life. Then I need to write more about editing to see if that is going to work for a thesis project.

But first, I’m going to eat some dinner.

Senior “Citizen”-itis

I was speaking to a former student the other day, a 2013 Taylor University graduate who took my Editing class a few years ago. I mentioned that I am winding up my three-year endeavor to obtain my master’s degree. My final thesis/research paper was turned in and, at that moment, I wanted to be done. I said, “I guess I have senior-itis.”

He got a little glimmer in his eye and said, “It’s a joke, I shouldn’t say it.”


“You really have senior ‘citizen’-itis.”graduation

Hardee har har.

I’m not quite there, Drew. But I’m getting close. And oh my. You’re probably right.

With a pile of copyediting projects to grade (the extensive project seemed like a good idea when I assigned it), several more class papers to write, and freelancing jobs stacking up, I was feeling so ready to put the whole “homework” thing behind me.

And I need my full eight hours every night. As my dear Grandpa Chaffee used to say, “Gettin’ old and decrepit.”

Being an older student has been wonderful and full of high points–which I talked about in this post. If I had to do it over, I don’t think I’d do it any other way.

I’ve found new friends I will cherish forever. I have some great new writing opportunities to work on in the coming year.

And I’ll admit. When I began the program I had a bit of an attitude: “I’ve been in publishing for thirty years, but apparently I don’t know anything until I have a master’s degree.” But thanks to amazing professors at Ball State I learned how much I needed to learn–and will always need to learn–when it comes to this wonderful field I’ve been occupying for so long. Writing never gets old. Editing is a skill that requires constant sharpening. Publishing is changing as fast as I can flip the pages in the nearest book. To truly be a professional, I need to keep up with my literary citizenship pledge and keep on writing!

It’s been tough, full of ups and downs. I’ve shed a few tears. I’ve felt on top of the world. I’ve felt like a total loser. When I’d look at a new syllabus and bawl my eyes out, my husband would always say, “You can do this. Every new class you think you can’t, and then you rise to the challenge. You can do this.”

We’re almost there.

It’s good to have a cheerleader. Even a senior-citizen one.


(Photo credit: By Cary Bass (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (])

Sniffles, Snorkels, and Shakespeare

I plopped down in the middle of the Shakespeare aisle in the library.

And I burst into tears.

Mind you, I kept my sobs silent, my mouth covered. No one could see me. This was in Range 107 and 108 on Third Floor East in the BSU library. The hundreds of floor-to-ceiling shelves of books are spaced just far enough apart to sit with legs crossed. I love this place, getting lost amongst the stacks. I love the smell and feel of real books, old books. I love that so many people at one time or another were able to hold a work in their hands and be proud to have had their words published–in this particular aisle, so many many words about the bard, Shakespeare.

The criticisms and handbooks and guides on his tragedies and comedies mocked me from the shelves. “You’ll never have time to learn everything you need to know. Just look how much has been written! Ha ha! And you think you have something to say?”

It was a tragedy that I, a grown woman, sat amongst the stacks bawling.

It was a comedy for exactly the same reason.

Please, no one come by.

I can just imagine: “There’s someone up there crying,” a concerned student reports to the circulation desk. “And she’s, like, really old. Maybe she’s, like, having a breakdown?”

I can imagine the words over the intercom system. “Clean up on Third Floor East, Range 107.” And someone will come looking for me with tissues and a concerned face and maybe a straitjacket.

“I’m all right. Really. Just a bad day. And I’m just really tired.”

I glance North and South from my spot on 3 East. Aside from the occasional student passing by, no one even seems to know I’m here having my little meltdown. I wipe my nose on my shirtsleeve (gross) and lean against the stacks. A few deep breaths.

“You can do this. Just finish this semester. You can do this.”

By Nemoischia (Own work)

But it’s that little voice from college days that pushed me so hard to be perfect. Why do it if it can’t be perfect?

The doubts creep in. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? What is the point?

A few more deep breaths. A prayer sob to the heavens.

“God, I know you want me doing this. I know beyond any doubt that you’ve walked me through this so far these last three years. I know that this is good for me in more ways than I can imagine. But I’m in over my snorkel . . .”

So God simply and quietly calms my heart and reminds me that he isn’t going to give me shallower waters; he’s instead going to provide a longer snorkel.

And maybe some swim fins.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

“As I Like It.” Sort Of. Attempting to Write about Shakespeare.

I have to admit–this has been a bit of a struggle, this whole grad school English major thing. This summer and this semester I’m taking literature classes. I’m trying to become an academic and think deeply and write position papers and do critical analysis.

I’m definitely out of my comfort zone.

As I noted in this post, much of my learning curve has to do with being back in academia after 33 years.  But, just as I advised my children during their college years, I made myself appointments with my professors.

I asked the first professor about critical analysis. “Really,” I asked, “hasn’t everything been said? How can I possibly find something more to say about Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Emerson or Twain?” He acknowledged that, indeed, there are whole conferences devoted to certain authors and their writings, and academics read papers to one another and everyone sits around and talks more about that particular author or book.

“We’re really kind of nerdy,” he admitted.

“And,” I added, “isn’t there a point where we’re starting to see things that never crossed the author’s mind? Isn’t there a point where we’ve beaten something to death and now we’re into territory the author wouldn’t recognize?”

His answer surprised me. Sure, it’s possible to beat something to death–and no one wants to do that. But, he explained, when these authors put their words out there in print, those words become ours. We can look at them through any lens we want. We can interpret by what we see there because, ultimately, that’s what all writing is. It calls for a response from us. Those authors are trying to say something, and it behooves us to figure that out, but ultimately we may never know completely. He explained that often there is indeed new scholarship that arises–new letters or papers written by the author surface somewhere and get published, thereby changing scholarship by showing that an author really wasn’t being sarcastic in that story (or was) based on opinions revealed in those papers.

So it can indeed be an ever-changing landscape.

And the classics are classics because of some timeless element that keeps us reading. They show us something about the time period but also something about ourselves. They cause a reaction in us. They make us look at ourselves or our own world you like it

And he encouraged me about what it means to be a scholar, an academic. “Anyone can have a response to a piece of writing. They like it. They don’t like it. It made them laugh or cry or think more deeply about something. But it takes a scholar to look at a piece of writing and consider the time and culture of its writing, compare it to other writing, look at the language, etc. Nothing is written in a vacuum; every author writes from (or against) influences in his or her life.” He encouraged me that by writing a paper or doing a critical analysis, I’m simply joining the academic conversation with another nuance, another point of view.

“Joining the conversation.” I like that. He told me to picture myself walking into a room with a whole bunch of nerdy people talking about As You Like It. Stand there and listen for awhile (translated as read a few academic journals and see what people have said about the topic I choose in that play). Then, from how I read it through my own lens of learning and life experience and study, I can add to the conversation. And I do indeed have something to add if I’ve done my homework, read the work carefully, and read what others have said.

An email to my other professor reiterated this. After I apologized for my seemingly basic question, she wrote this: “Focus on locating critical texts about AYLI and seeing what conversations currently surround the text. As you get familiar with the criticism, one or several things will likely happen: 1) You’ll find a gap where the critics aren’t quite touching on a theme or issue that you’d like to emphasize, 2) you’ll seriously or even partially disagree with someone’s point of view, which opens the door to your own argument, 3) you’ll see connections among previously separate arguments and you can help thread them together into a larger argument.”

I think I can do that.

So as I contemplate a position paper on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I realize that maybe I have something to say.

I’ll let you know.

Punctuation? It Can Be Fun. . . . Seriously!

Did you see what I did there . . . in the title? Used lots of punctuation?

Trying to add a little humor to what appears to be an overwhelming next few months. One final semester where I play two main roles–I’m a student and I’m a teacher.

As a student, I am working to finish my master’s degree in December. I’m taking a class in research where I can finally officially learn how to navigate all of the electronic sources online. I learned a little along the way to get through some of my other courses, but I’m thrilled to get some real training (my last big research paper would have been written on an electric typewriter after doing research in the card catalog).

My second class is on Shakespeare, and here’s my reading pile for this class:


AND, I’m finishing my research paper where I’m working to prove the importance of Literary Citizenship in university creative writing programs.

Then, I’m also teaching my Editing class at Taylor U. This is the first time I’ve had the class twice a week, so that meant revamping my syllabus. There’s so much I want to teach . . . and I soon found myself frustrated trying to lay out all of the pieces in logical order to fill all the class periods. I kept crossing out and erasing on my notepad, and then I remembered that we had a whiteboard in our basement. I pulled it out from behind some boxes, located dry erase pens and an eraser, and set about writing up my syllabus. Here’s what it looked like:

White board 1

Green for class activities, red for papers that need to be prepped and photocopied, black for homework and notes to myself. Basically we’re doing content editing in September, copyediting in October, and proofreading in November.

So the middle of October we work on proofreader marks (which certainly come in handy in copyediting), and they get a chance to learn about the Chicago Manual of Style and house style guides (I know–this is beyond exciting for you).

white board 2

And I show them this clip of “phonetic punctuation” by the amazing Victor Borge, a pianist who was also a comedian. We lost him in 2000, but his brilliance lives on.

You see, punctuation can be fun! And that’s just what I hope I can teach my students!

(Now if only Victor had done something on library research . . . )

Wordsworth, Rockwell, and Leaping Hearts

I admit to falling in love again . . . I have rediscovered William Wordsworth. I love this poem titled “My heart leaps up when I behold“:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The child is father of the man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

I’m currently taking a summer intensive course on the Romantic writers (the last three classes in my English program are literature! Yay!). Here are just the books for the next four weeks (not to mention numerous links to other writing such as my dear Wordsworth above):

bedside books

It’s been many years since I read these books, several decades since my English major. It almost makes me want to cry with joy to be “forced” to reread some of the greatest literature of all time. I’m scribbling notes of books I simply must read again, books any self-respecting English Lit major should know (or at least remember). Add Moby Dick to the above pile. It’s been too long, Captain Ahab! We must meet again!

But I digress . . .

What I love about the poem by Wordsworth is that it correctly assesses how I feel about my writing. Asked in a class last semester to determine my personal “aesthetic,” I thought long and hard. What do I want to write about? Who am I as a writer? I’ve been an editor for so many years that my writing got neglected. When I came back to it, I had to rediscover myself.

I honestly don’t recall “who influenced me” beyond what I’m sure was just the love of words and books. I can’t remember specifics. One thing I do recall, however, is staring for hours at the paintings by Norman Rockwell in a big coffee table book my parents had. I loved his realism. I loved how he captured a story in a painting so realistic that it almost looked like a snapshot. Having a dad in the military, this is probably one of my favorites:

"The Homecoming" by Norman Rockwell (1945)
“The Homecoming” by Norman Rockwell (1945)

The young boy dashing down the stairs to meet the returning soldier might well have been my ten-year-old self greeting my dad on his return from Vietnam.

What I love is realism. Take a moment. Capture it. Paint it for the reader.

Like Wordsworth, I want to notice things, to always have my heart leap up when I encounter nature in its beauty or a moment in time that must be captured in writing.

I like the short form. Sarah Hollowell set me on to Short Story Month (May, if you didn’t know) and Cathy Day commented on that blog, describing a friend who used to write 750-word stories. So that’s my challenge . . . to start using that site (where I’m already a hit-or-miss member) and capture the moments.

So what short story writers do you admire most–past or current? I want to add them to my list!

5 Notes about Being an Old(er) Student

Just as, over three decades ago, I entered college with fear and trembling, I did the same when I decided to go back to continue my education. When I graduated with my BA in 1980, I swore I would never go back to school. I am a perfectionist and I put myself under so much pressure. When I got out, I couldn’t wait to just have a normal life. And, to be honest, an advanced degree probably would not have made a whole lot of difference on the path I chose since experience has been my trump card.

However, when I decided three years ago that I wanted to teach at the college level, the doors were closed without an MA. And so, I once again entered the academic setting as a student with classmates as old as my children. Here are my words of advice to you if you’re middle-aged (or older) and considering going back to school. gray hairs

(1) Scope out all the options.

Depending, of course, on what you’re studying and what degree you’re pursuing, there are technical programs, low-residency programs, online programs, and traditional on-campus programs (full and part time). Online may be right for you given your job and other life circumstances. Low-residency means that most of the coursework is done online and then you travel to the school for an intensive class time. Schools are different–it might be two weeks twice a year or four weeks in the summer, etc. The point is, as you consider continued schooling, think about how you might work best.

If you’re near a campus that has a terrific on-campus program, don’t be afraid to try it because you’re “too old.” Yes, it’s a little scary but the amazing folks I have met, the new friendships I’ve made, and the new connections I’ve forged have made it all worthwhile. (And I’m an introvert!)

By the way, if you do this, you’re called a “non-traditional” student.

(2) Know your reasons and be ready to commit.

In this economy, many folks are heading back to school to get that extra edge they hope will help them get a job. You have to carefully weigh the cost of school versus what the outcome may be. It’s an expensive endeavor and should be entered into wisely. You can get loans if you go at least half time (most places). One good thing about being our age and heading back to school is that we often do have a pretty specific picture of who we are with a lot of years and experience under our belts. I had a specific goal in mind when I started and a reason to be there. That helped me keep going when the going got tough.

And you have to think about being a student–it’s a different mindset. This article (and the accompanying links) has tips for remembering how to be a student when you’re older. At least, at this point, you probably know that pulling an all-nighter is not a good idea . . .

Getting through any program will take some time. Are you ready to commit to one, two, three years? Are you prepared to plod through a class at a time? Can you set aside several hours a week to study and do homework? If you decide to do an online program, are you self-disciplined enough to stay with it?

(3) Let your life experience work for you.

Chances are you’re contemplating a particular program because you want to finish something you started or because, over the course of your lifetime, you’ve discovered a gift or desire that you never saw before and you want to see where the study can take you. You’ll be in classes with younger people who are still trying to figure out what life holds for them. You’ve been there. In one sense, you’re still in the process of discovery by going back to school, but in another sense you’re bringing loads of life experiences to inform your studies. No one is a blank slate, but your slate is probably really full. Don’t apologize for that. Embrace it. This article discusses some of the advantages you have as an older student–and they’re good ones.

My friend, L. Marie, writer and blogger, went back for her MFA later in life. She says, “I was a little intimidated at the thought of returning to grad school after so many years. But at Vermont College, I didn’t have to feel that way. In my program, Writing for Children and Young Adults, there were many students my age and even older. I love that!”

(4) Get to know your professors.

I said this in last week’s post for young students, but it’s no less true for you. Many of those professors may be younger than you, but place yourself in their classroom as a sponge ready to soak up whatever you can. I find that I am so ready to learn because going back to school is a very intentional choice for me and I want to get everything out of it that I can. You’ll find that as well.

(5) Get to know your classmates.

No, you probably won’t hang out together, but do your best to make them comfortable with you and you’ll be more comfortable with them. No, you’re not a kid anymore, but learn what you can from this next generation. To me it’s fascinating to be in a classroom with students who have always had computers and who have worldviews shaped by the fact that they can access so much information at any moment.

Besides, they help me figure out my Twitter account . . .

How About a Nice Cup of Tea?

In my current grad school class that focuses on fiction writing, our assignment is to write a “diptych” or “triptych,” two or three stories that are linked the way stories would be linked in a composite novel. These linked stories are able to stand alone but are related in such a way that, when read together, they give the reader that much deeper an understanding of each individual story.

I have a visual diptych right here on my porch, two diverse stories that have very little to link them until today, because today my husband and I hung up the shelf and washed my teacup collection.

Now let me tell you my “diptych.”IMG_8925

The shelf is not just any old shelf, you see. This shelf means so much to me because it came from my Grandpa Chaffee. And it isn’t even a shelf; it’s a mail sorter that came from a post office in a tiny town many many years ago. My grandfather was a rural mail carrier all his life. He exemplified the old saying, “Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail” would keep the mail from getting through. He drove his big old car all over those country roads. If he couldn’t get through due to western Pennsylvania snowfalls, he would strap on his cross country skis, grab the poles, and get the mail up to the house. My dad recalls riding with him at times and getting to be the one to cross all manner of difficult terrain to make sure the mail got through.

Somehow my grandfather ended up with this mail sorter and it ended up in the barn on his property (the barn my cousins and I spent many a happy afternoon exploring as our parents yelled at us to “stay off the second floor” because they were certain we’d fall through). The post office probably remodeled and updated, and gramps asked to keep the sorter. Maybe grandma thought she could do something with it. Maybe gramps just couldn’t bear to see it tossed away.

I’m glad he did that. My husband immediately saw the potential in it when we cousins were asked to take what we wanted from grandpa’s home after his death. We decided on the mail sorter.

Now for part two.

IMG_8927The teacups are a collection I began years ago when someone told me I should collect something and I couldn’t figure out what. Collections seemed odd to me–why have lots of something that just sits around? I decided if I was going to collect something, those things might as well be useful. Teacups seemed to fit the bill–beautiful yet usable. These teacups have special meaning to me because I began the collection when my family lived in Europe during my high school years. Every time we visited a country, I purchased a teacup. So these cups represent much of Europe. (Of course, my high school mind thought I would remember where I bought each one, and my 50-plus-year-old mind hasn’t a clue. I recall the one I bought in Paris, but that’s it. That’s kind of sad, really.) Many other cups are gifts from family and friends wanting to add to my collection. I have full-size cups and several demitasse cups. They are beautiful works of art. Just looking at them makes me happy.

Quite by accident, I discovered that the teacup saucers fit exactly in the spaces between the slats of the mail sorter. Voila. My own personal diptych–two stories now fit together. A mail sorter from a time past when folks stopped by and visited one another and shared conversation and a pot of tea.

Would you like to stop by? Tea’s brewing . . . and you can choose from a fine collection of teacups!