Essay, Feminism, Kate Chopin, Literary Criticism, writing

The “Awakenings” of Edna Pontellier

awakening.jpg“She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is the story of one woman’s realization of the world and potential within her. In her Journey, Edna Pontellier awakens to three important pieces of her own being. First, she awakens to her artistic and creative potential. This minor but important awakening gives rise to Edna Pontellier’s most obvious and demanding awakening, one which resonates throughout the book: the sexual.

However, though her sexual awakening may seem to be the most important issue in the novel, Chopin actually slips in a final awakening at the end, one that is hinted at early on but not resolved until the last-minute, and that is Edna’s awakening to her true humanity and role as a mother. These three awakenings, artistic, sexual, and motherhood, are what Chopin includes in her novel to define womanhood; or, more specifically, independent womanhood.

What seems to ignite Edna’s awakening is the rediscovery of her artistic inclinations and talents. Art, in The Awakening becomes a symbol of freedom and of failure. While attempting to become an artist, Edna reaches the first peak of her awakening. She begins to view the world in artistic terms. When Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna why she loves Robert, Edna responds, “Why? Because his hair is brown and grows away from his temples; because he opens and shuts his eyes, and his nose is a little out of drawing.” Edna is beginning to notice intricacies and details that she would have ignored previously, details that only an artist would focus and dwell on, and fall in love with. Further, art is a way for Edna to assert herself.  She sees it as a form of self-expression and individualism.

Edna’s own awakening is hinted at when the narrator writes, “Edna spent an hour or two in looking over her own sketches. She could see their short-comings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes” (90). The discovery of defects in her previous works, and the desire to make them better demonstrate Edna’s reformation. Art is being used to explain Edna’s change, to suggest that Edna’s soul and character are also changing and reforming, that she is finding defects within herself. Art, as Mademoiselle Reisz defines it, is also a test of individuality. But, like the bird with its broken wings struggling along the shore, Edna perhaps fails this final test, never blossoming into her true potential because she is distracted and confused along the way.

A great deal of this confusion is owed to the second awakening in Edna’s character, the sexual awakening. This awakening is, without doubt, the most considered and examined aspect of the novel. As Edna Pontellier begins to realize that she is an individual, capable of making individual choices without being another’s possession, she begins to explore what these choices might bring her. Her first sexual awakening comes in the form of Robert Lebrun. Edna and Robert are attracted to one another from first meeting, though they do not realize it. They unwittingly flirt with each other, so that only the narrator and reader understand what is going on. For instance, in the episode where Robert and Edna speak of buried treasure and pirates:

“And in a day we should be rich!” she laughed. “I’d give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up. I think you would know how to spend it. Pirate gold isn’t a thing to be hoarded or utilized. It is something to squander and throw to the four winds, for the fun of seeing the golden specks fly.

“We’d share it and scatter it together,” he said. His face flushed. (59)

The two do not understand the significance of their conversation, but in reality, the words speak of desire and sexual metaphor. Jane P. Tompkins writes, “Robert and Edna do not realize, as the reader does, that their conversation is an expression of their unacknowledged passion for one another” (23). Edna awakens to this passion whole-heartedly. After Robert leaves, and before the two have opportunity to truly explore their desires, Edna has an affair with Alcee Arobin.

Though it is never directly spelled out, Chopin uses language to convey the message that Edna has stepped over the line, and damned her marriage. For instance, at the end of chapter thirty-one the narrator writes, “he did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties” (154).

However, it is not only in situations with men that Edna’s passion is flared. In fact, the “symbol for sexual desire itself,” as George Spangler puts it, is the sea (252). It is appropriate that the most concentrated and artistically depicted symbol for desire comes, not in the form of a man, who may be viewed as a possessor, but in the sea, something which Edna herself, once afraid of swimming, conquers. The narrator writes, “the voice of [the] sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (25).

This is perhaps the most sensual and passionate chapter of the book, devoted entirely to depictions of the sea and to Edna’s sexual awakening. It is pointed out here that “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.” Still, as Donald Ringe notes in his essay, “[The Awakening] is too often seen in terms of the question of sexual freedom” (580).

The true awakening in the novel, and in Edna Pontellier, is the awakening of self. Throughout the novel, she is on a transcendental journey of self-discovery. Edna is learning what it means to be an individual, a woman, and a mother. Indeed, Chopin amplifies the significance of this journey by mentioning that Edna Pontellier “sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson until she grew sleepy. She realized that she had neglected her reading, and determined to start anew upon a course of improving studies, now that her time was completely her own to do with as she liked” (122). That Edna is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson is significant, especially at this point in the novel, when she is starting a new life of her own.

This new life is signaled by a “sleep-waking” metaphor, one which, as Ringe points out, “is an important romantic image for the emergence of the self or soul into a new life” (581). A seemingly excessive amount of the novel is devoted to Edna sleeping, but when one considers that, for each time Edna falls asleep, she must also awaken, one begins to realize that this is just another way of Chopin demonstrating Edna’s personal awakening.

Another transcendentalist link to awakening can be found in the inclusion of Emerson’s theory of correspondence, which has to do with life’s “double world, one within and one without” (Ringe 582). Much of Edna is contradictory. Her attitudes toward her husband, her children, her friends, and even the men with whom she has affairs. These contradictions are encompassed within the idea that Edna was “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (33).

So, Edna’s true awakening is to the understanding of herself as a human being. But the awakening goes further still. She also becomes aware, at the end, of her role as woman and mother. At one point, early in the novel and before this awakening, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (80).

William Reedy describes Edna Pontellier’s character and conflict when he wrote that “Woman’s truest duties are those of wife and mother, but those duties do not demand that she shall sacrifice her individuality” (Toth 117). The last awakening, to this realization that womanhood and motherhood can be a part of the individual, comes at the very end of the book. Toth writes that “Chopin makes the ending attractive, maternal, sensuous” (121). Edna meets with Madame Ratignolle again, to see her while she is in labor. At this point, Ratignolle cries out to Edna, “think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (182). It is for the children, then, that Edna takes her life.

Though the signs are confused, they are throughout the book; with a broken-winged bird symbolizing Edna’s failure, and the sea concurrently symbolizing freedom and escape, Edna’s suicide is in fact a way of her maintaining her independence while also putting her children first. It is ironic that the point in her life when she realizes a mother’s duty, is at the moment of her death. She does sacrifice herself, as she claims she never would, by giving up the chance at all she could have in order to protect her children’s future and well-being.

Spangler explains this when he says, “primary was her fear of a succession of lovers and the effect such a future would have on her children: ‘to-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but Raoul and Etienne!’” (254).  Edna gives up the newly found passion and understanding, she gives up her art, and her life, to protect her family.

The Awakening is a complex and beautiful novel, filled with contradictions and sensations. Edna Pontellier journeys through life, awakening to the transcendental beliefs of individuality and connections with nature. She discovers sensual joy and power in the sea, beauty in art, and independence in sexuality. However, though some critics claim the ending to be the novel’s downfall, and what keeps it from top status in American literary canon, the fact is that it wraps up the novel in as beautiful a way as it was told all along. The novel ends in confusion and wonder, as it is told.

Edna spends her life, since the awakening, questioning the world around her and within her, so why not remain questioning to the end?  Spangler writers in his essay, that “Mrs. Chopin asks her reader to believe in an Edna who is completely defeated by the loss of Robert, to believe in the paradox of a woman who has awakened to passional life and yet, quietly, almost thoughtlessly, chooses death” (254).

But Edna Pontellier is not defeated by Robert. She is the one making choices, as she has determined to do all along. Her death was not thoughtless; in fact, it seems almost pre-planned, a “coming home” to the sea. Edna strips off her clothes and becomes one with the very source of nature which helped to awaken her to her own power and individualism in the first place. Further still, that she goes quietly is not an admission of defeat, but a testament to Edna’s ability to end her life the way she lived it.

Each decision that Edna Pontellier makes throughout the novel is done quietly, suddenly. The dinner party, the move from her home to the “Pigeon House.” There is never any ruckus or chorus, just simple, impassioned change. Thus, the novel’s conclusion is a statement to the enduring power of womanhood and individualism. Chopin is affirming that, even in death, perhaps only in death, one can become and remain truly awakened.

References

Adam W. Burgess, “The ‘Awakenings’ of Edna Pontellier.” Adam Burgess, Writer 03 Aug. 2018. https://adamburgesswriter.com/2018/08/03/the-awakenings-of-edna-pontellier/.

Kate Chopin, The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications,1993.

Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The AwakeningAmerican Literature 43 (January 1972) 580-88.

George M. Spangler, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” Novel 3 (Spring 1970): 249-55.

Jane P. Tompkins, “The Awakening: An Evaluation,” Feminist Studies 3 (Spring-Summer 1976): 22-9.

Emily Toth, Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

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Just for Fun

Twenty-Four Things About Me

I thought I would have a little bit of fun today with a very old meme that used to go around the blogosphere. The concept is pretty simple, review the categories below and provide four responses that answer the question. It’s a bit of a getting to know you activity. Ready? Set. Go!

4 Things In/On My Desk

Books.

Laptop.

Funko Pops!

A candle.

4 Things I’ve Always Wanted To Do (but haven’t yet)

Write a book (that is not* a dissertation).

Travel Europe.

Skydive!

Learn a third language (French? Italian?).

4 Favorite Things In My Room/Bedroom

Painting of a yellow bird in a black sky that my sister made me.

Record player.

Vintage globe with hidden bar.

Wizard-themed bookends.

4 Things I Enjoy Very Much At The Moment

Reading.

Walking/hiking.

Writing.

Listening to music.

4 Songs I Can’t Get Out Of My Head

“World Spins Madly on” by The Weepies

“Ready to Get Down” by Josh Ritter

“What’s Left of the Flag” by Flogging Molly

“Thirteen Sad Farewells” by Stu Larsen

4 Things You Don’t Know About Me

I’m very sentimental.

I’m very easily distracted.

I have almost died twice.

I love adventure.

So, there’s a simple and fun way of learning a little bit about me, rapid-fire style! I would love to read some of your responses, too, so feel free to use the comments to provide your own answers and/or share this on your blog and link-up in the comments here so we can visit each other. 🙂

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CC-Spin, Classics Club

Time to SPIN! #ccspin

Recently, the original moderators for The Classics Club (including yours truly) stepped down after six years and handed things over to four new individuals. They’re starting their tenure off with a bang, by diving into Classics Spin #18! 

What is the Classics Spin? Essentially, clubbers choose twenty books from their classics club reading list and post them by the due date.Then, on “spin day,” a number between 1-20 is revealed, and that is the book you have to read before the deadline (usually the end of the following month). You can choose your books randomly, divide them by categories, or whatever. Part of the challenge, though, is to choose at least a few that you know you’re dreading, just in case this is the opportunity to nudge you toward it. 

So, I went mostly with a “random” sort this time, but I did choose at least one book from each of the “centuries” represented on my main club list. Here are the twenty I’ve pulled to play with:

  1. The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
  2. At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill
  3. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  4. The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade
  5. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  6. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (re-read)
  7. Eugénie Grandet – Honoré de Balzac
  8. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  9. So Big by Edna Ferber 
  10. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  11. Paradise Lost by John Milton
  12. Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol
  13. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  14. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  15. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  16. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  17. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  19. Metamorphoses by Ovid
  20. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

I guess I’m hoping for Number 3, Number 5, or Number 8 and probably most worried about Number 20, Number 19, and Number 13 – mostly because of how long they all are; but whatever happens, I’m ready to read! Let’s spin! 

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge

July Checkpoint! #TBR2018RBR

Hello, TBR Pile Challengers! 

We are now 7-months into the best reading challenge of all-time! (Yes, I might be biased.) I am thrilled to see that we’ve got 160+ reviews already posted! I know a lot of you have made some amazing progress on your lists and others are, like me, struggling a bit. Wherever you are at this point, good on you! The first goal is to have fun and to read some good books, right? The bonus is being able to finally knock some of those long-lingering books from your shelves. Even one or two is a win! 

We didn’t quite hit last month’s goal, so how about a re-do? It is summer after all. Do I dare challenge you all to get us to TWO HUNDRED linked-up reviews by the next checkpoint? Let’s try! 

Question of the Month: If you could recommend one book that you have read from your TBR Pile list this year, which one would it be and why? 


My Progress: 4 of 12 Completed / 4 of 12 Reviewed

Didion-WhiteI’ve read and reviewed 4 of my 12 required books. Yeah, you read that right. I’m way behind. I’ve made zero progress since last month. I’m going to commit right now to reading and reviewing AT LEAST TWO more from my list by next checkpoint, though, because that will put me to the half-way mark, which is something. The semester also starts up again in late-August, at which point all bets are off and I’ll be lucky to read one book a month. 

Over the next month, I should have time for reading and writing. I especially hope to get to these books on my “Summer Reading List,” some of which are on my TBR challenge list and some of which are on my Classics Club list. As for my TBR Pile challenge, the next two books I have coming up are: Joan Didion’s The White Album and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. Wish me luck!

My completed reads:

How are you doing?

index

Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year. Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated! At the end of the challenge, all entires will go into one big raffle for the $50 book prize! 

MINI-CHALLENGE #3

As promised last month, this month’s checkpoint comes with another mini-challenge! There is just one requirement: read a book from your list, write a review for it, and link-it up! When you’ve done this, go ahead and leave a comment right here on this post to let everyone know you’ve made some progress and are eligible for the mini-challenge prize! Speaking of which, one randomly selected “winner” will receive a book of their choice, up to $20USD, from The Book Depository. Good luck and happy reading! 

LINK UP YOUR REVIEWS 

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Blog Post, Fun, writing

A Novel Journal

Every so often, I stumble across something that gets me so excited I simply must share it with the world. Or at least you all, who comprise my little world! One example of this is probably The Folio Society editions that I share every so often here on the blog.

But something new caught my eye recently while I was wandering around my local Barnes & Noble book store, as I do a few times every week. It’s a series of writing journals called “A Novel Journal,” released by Canterbury Classics.

Here’s how the publisher describes them: “Whether fueling the next great literary masterpiece, or simply adding a sense of tribute to daily journaling, these literary keepsakes bring an element of fun and culture to any writing project. Fashioned with colorful endpapers, color edges, and matching elastic bands to keep covers closed and pages intact, Novel Journals are ideal for gifting and collecting.”

So, here’s the thing. If you are a writer and a reader who, like me, often feels torn between his “loyalty” to one or the other (AM I WRITER? AM I A READER!?), these journals are literally the best of both worlds. Why? Well, not only are they beautiful, and not only do they have an excellent “finger feel,” and not only do they represent the greatest books of all time, with a well-selected quote from said books right there on the cover, but the lines of the journal are actually made up of the entire text of its representative novel, in tiny print! 

Obviously, I couldn’t resist. I was going to get one or two, but ended up leaving the store with five of them. I definitely added a whole bunch more to my wish list, and I plan to pick up at least two more very soon. (It was also fortunate for my wallet that Barnes & Noble had these on clearance!)

The other fabulous element to these journals is the artwork/design on the inside covers, as well as the front-page that explains the selected book and leaves a place for the journal owner to put their name and information. Here’s a look at the insides of the ones I purchased, and in case the image is too small to read, the text inside the font page says, for example, “This journal belongs to ____ and is shared with Edgar Allan Poe.” How delightful is that!?

Ultimately, as I said, I ended up with five (pictured below). But I hope to go back for PETER PAN and WALT WHITMAN this weekend because they were beautiful and I’ve been thinking about them all week!

Thoreau’s WALDEN and Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

 

 

 

 

Wilde’s PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and Doyle’s ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

 

 

 

 

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S COLLECTED STORIES

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Book Review, Contemporary, Crime Novel, Fiction, Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King was one of my most anticipated releases of 2018, and one of only two books that I actually pre-ordered this year. I’ve always been a King fan, but something about the description and his development over the last couple of decades heightened my intrigue even further.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of him lately and trying to trace his themes across novels and genres. There are some common threads, and really three distinct avenues that I’ve been able to tack down, thus far: first, his interest in the psychological terror of the unknown/supernatural; second, his interest in morality and the battle of good versus evil; and finally, his interest in the ethics of humanity and the truth(s) of human nature. That said, it seems like The Outsider is in many ways a masterwork that brings together King’s three primary themes and genres, at last. While reading it, I sensed a very delicate and compelling balance between the supernatural horrors of Itand The Shining, with the moral questions embedded in pieces like The Stand and The Shawshank Redemption, and the ethical concerns of his realistic, true crime fiction like “The Body” and Joyland. It is all here, working together almost seamlessly to deliver what is certainly one of King’s best works to date.

The story itself centers around a man named Terry Maitland, a popular man in his small town; he works as an English teacher and coaches the Little League baseball team, currently on a winning streak. He is well-liked, trusted, and respected in the community, almost without question. And then the unthinkable happens. A young boy, one of Maitland’s baseball players, is found dead—indeed, far worse than dead—in a park, and all evidence points to Maitland as the perpetrator. Not only does the town turn on him, and with seemingly every good reason to do so, but slowly, more sinister forces begin to enter the picture as well. At first, the evil unleashed in this town seems to be the result of human nature; there is a mob mentality that develops when a crime so evil, so unspeakable is apparently perpetrated by one of the town’s most unimpeachable residents. The residents find a kind of joy, a catharsis, in bringing as much pain to bear as they possibly can against Maitland and his wife. But not all is as it seems.

After more preventable tragedies, and a lot of early assumptions, there is another murder. The modus operandi is exactly the same as the first crime, but how could this be? Maitland had an alibi for the first murder, a nearly rock-solid one. And he was already under arrest when the next happened. What could be going on in this little town? King spins an elaborate web that spans the country and, like a bizarre supernatural crime novel, the reader is introduced to new characters, new locations, and histories that play more and more significant roles in the unfolding drama and that sometimes lead in one direction, and then another, often falsely. The end might surprise some readers, while others might come to it with met expectations. I, for one, was right about something the entire time, but also completely fooled exactly twice. That made for a fun ride!

Personally, while I was disappointed in a major decision Stephen King makes in the end, and dissatisfied overall with the denouement, I still think this is one of King’s best works because it does bring together all of his best practices and the very reasons why we keep returning to King’s works. King’s characterization is also more on point and balanced in this work than in any others I can think of at the moment. He always has much to say about the human psyche and the ways in which we tend to disappoint one another when we need each other most. Even when the thrills and terrors of supernatural horrors are layered on the surface, creeping us out and giving us the thrills of the genre, it is always the very humandecisions beneath that horror which results in the actual intrigue and terror at the heart of his narratives.

In this case, the situation is somewhat reversed. The crimes committed seem disturbingly possible, and they are described in gruesome, horrifying detail. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything more terrifying than the realistic and all-too-human nature at the surface of the crimes. For that reason, I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of the book and think, had King kept going with the direction the book seems to be taking through that part of the book, it would have ended up being my new favorite. That said, what is clear is that The Outsider is undeniably Stephen King, and in fact, it is Stephen King at his very best.

Are you a Stephen King fan who has read this latest novel? If so, what did you think?

My thoughts on other Stephen King works can be found here.

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Weekly Writing Reflection, writing

A Change of Perspective

For the last few years, I have been working toward a shift in focus on this blog and in my life in general. I’ve wanted to spend more time writing, but from 2014-2016, I was working on my dissertation and that provided almost more writing than I could handle! Needless to say, I didn’t do a whole lot of work on other projects, save for a scribble or two here and there, to jot down ideas or get started. Lately, though, I have been putting much more structured focus on writing and trying to get into a writer’s mentality. This has meant that my reading output (or input?) has dropped, leaving me with less to say and do here on the blog. My reading hasn’t stopped altogether—that would be insane—but the types of reading I’m choosing has changed, and the pace at which I’m reading has slowed. This is also partly due to my profession as a college English educator who is constantly grading essays. You do 50-100 of those a week and, well, you don’t want to read much afterward!So, I’ve been trying to decide what to do with the blog in order to keep up a regular presence and also make it “make sense” with my shift in reader/writer focus. I debated with the idea of shutting it down altogether, but this blog has been with me for nearly a decade. I love it and it doesn’t feel right, at the moment, to close up shop. It might continue to evolve into something else as I spend more and more time writing, but isn’t that okay, too? At this time, I’ve decided to keep posting short reviews of books when I want (I’ve got a couple more on deck, in fact: Stephen King’s The Outsider and Bella Forrest’s The Breaker), but I will also include some WIP and general writing progress updates, perhaps once per week. I’m completing a miniature self-guided “MFA” program for writers, and one of the suggestions made in the program is ACCOUNTABILITY. This means setting a writing goal and then holding yourself accountable for what you did or did not do.I had always heard that you should never talk about your writing, you should just write, so I was a little surprised to hear about this strategy; but, like anything else, I do think it makes sense that you are much more likely to do the work if you’re not doing it entirely in secret, where there are no expectations or repercussions for laziness, slacking, and skipping. This also means my mentality and online presence have shifted/are shifting from primarily reader-centered to writer-centered. As such, as some may have already noticed, my Twitter account changed (as of today) from @RoofBeamReader to @RoofBeamWriter. I was going to change the blog name and URL, too, but I realized that would cause all sorts of problems with information that is already linked out there, and that’s simply not worth it right now. I might eventually migrate to a writer’s website/blog, but I’m comfortable staying here for now.There are a number of other suggestions from the program that I plan to follow, and I want to outline them briefly, here, as a baseline for myself (and if there are any other writers out there who read this and want to connect, great!) and to help me set up some kind of template that I can use for weekly WIP updates. The general content areas are: Write with Focus; Read with Purpose; Build Your Community.

Write with Focus

As far as I can tell, there are three very important elements to writing with focus.The first is to write. All the time. Every day, and in whatever fashion. It might mean journaling, it might mean writing craft exercises (like responding to prompts), and it might mean working on a specific WIP project, whether outlining, character mapping, or actual manuscript work. I’ve made some progress on this daily writing component, including jotting down a lot of notes for my upcoming WIP (still in invention stage, but I’m getting there), journaling regularly, and working on craft elements with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Soon, I will also start work on the actual WIP, which I will need to schedule into my days, and that brings me to the next part.The second is to control your environment and set the mood for success. This is something I teach my writing students; they must pay attention to their environments, what works and what doesn’t, and make conscious decisions about where and when they are doing their work, and what else needs to happen in that atmosphere (music or other background noise? Lighting? Snacks? Etc.). The MFA guide suggests trying to set an environment and work with it for a while, and then slowly make one adjustment at a time until everything feels “right.” It may last forever, it may need to be adjusted again at some point but controlling the environment so that your mind knows that when it is “x” time and “y” environment is set, that means it is writing time. I have made almost no progress with this component! For weeks, I’ve been setting my alarm to get up early so that I can spend two hours of my morning writing, before any of the other pressures/responsibilities of the day start to move in. And for weeks, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night and turning the alarm off. I’m not sure if morning writing is for me (in fact, I’m positive that I write best at night), but given the nature of my daily life, I feel like I have to find a way to make this work because, otherwise, my own writing just won’t happen. I’ll get caught up in everything else that I need to do, including my profession. I do at least have some ideas in mind about what my writing situation will look like. I have a private room. I have a desk set up with my row of writing-related texts facing front and center. I have my notes and ideas books nearby, and a candle to light to trigger the “mood.” I think I’m most of the way there. What’s keeping me from starting? At first, I figured it was laziness or the fact that I have severe insomnia. Since I get very little sleep, it’s extremely difficult to get up earlier than absolutely necessary; but there’s the kicker: I have to recognize that getting up to write is necessary, just like every other necessary part of my day. I have not made that turn yet.The third component to writing with focus is understanding the process. Even as a professional writer and writing instructor, I fall prey to the idea that if I can’t get it “right” right away, then I must be doing something wrong. I KNOW this is utter nonsense. I spend hours every week reassuring my own students that they are not failures for trying and that, in fact, the only failure is in not doing anything at all. So, to write with focus, I need to remind myself that a first draft is just that – a dump. A place to get everything out. Then the fixes come in, and I can and should take those fixes one at a time, focusing on one particular element and then another and then another, rather than doing a line-edit approach to the entire thing. This MFA program is giving me clear ideas of how to strategize the revision process so that it makes sense and so that, ultimately, I revise the most critical elements first, leaving each subsequent phase a little less demanding. These are some tips I would not have realized had I not begun this focused study.

Read with Purpose

The next suggestion from this MFA program is to “read with purpose,” and again there are a few components to this instruction.

Read Your Genre

The first element is to “Read Your Genre.” This is another instruction I found contradictory at first. Essentially, what they mean is that you should read a lot of the genre you plan to write in, be it young adult fiction, science fiction, personal essay, memoir, etc. I had always been under the impression, though, that you wanted to avoid reading your own genre while writing in it because you might be subconsciously influenced by your reading, which could lead to borrowing or copying. I’m still concerned with that, quite frankly, so I think I’ve come up with a way to read within the genre but avoid the possibility for influence. First, most of my pleasure reading during the actual writing of a WIP will be from outside the WIP’s genre. At the moment, for example, I’m working in contemporary fiction of a particular theme, so I’m reading mostly non-fiction (history, philosophy). This keeps my reader-personality satisfied and my brain actively engaged, but limits the potential for me to be influenced by other stories, characters, etc. I might still end up working in some elements of my reading into the WIP, but it would be in a completely different way, such as incorporating a type of philosophical statement or lesson which I would still need to build into the story world or into the character’s development. I’m finding this kind of an interesting, even fun, activity. The other way I’m going about this is to read within the genre when I am outside of the WIP-writing phase. So, during pre-writing or when I’ve put away the first draft and am letting it sit, or when I am working on revisions and edits. Once my own complete work is out, there’s not much chance that I’ll go back and rework entire scenes or characters simply because I’m reading something awesome in another book. This will keep me engaged with my genre (what works? What doesn’t? What’s cliché? What’s novel?) while in the process of writing inside that genre. A final suggestion the MFA program makes, and which I plan to also adopt, is to read in the genre but of other forms. So, for example, if I’m writing a contemporary novel, I can spend my reading time on short stories. This would still let me read for plot, character, story arc, etc., but in much smaller chunks. In this way, I would also be able to see the full development of a story in a single sitting and take it apart for how and why it is working, or not. In many ways, this is beneficial over novel-reading, which takes much longer and cannot be seen in “snapshot” form.

Read the Craft

Another component of reading with focus is to read other writers on the craft. There are a few reasons for this, some of which include the following: continuously engaging in intellectual conversation with other writers through my reading/responses; getting ideas about what has and has not worked for other writers, and trying it all out; learning how to deal with setbacks, apparent failures, distractions, challenges, etc. by seeing what other writers have to say on these subjects; and treating myself as one among these writers who I admire, getting to know them not just as writers but as people who also had/have lives that needed to be lived, responsibilities that had to be kept, etc. This is one part of the process that I have already begun, and it is probably my favorite part (no surprise as a reader who likes to write, I love reading what other writers have to say about writing?). At the moment, for example, I’m reading the MFA craft book as well as Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. I give myself an hour every night with one or the other of these books, including journaling my reactions to them and incorporating notes for my own WIP based on what I’ve read in the craft texts. I have a number of these “on deck,” of various types (from The Emotional Craft of Fiction to Book in a Month to Light the Dark), as I think it is important to look at writing from a variety of angles, whether that be pacing, character, memoir, creativity, inspiration, language, or whatever else.

Read Like a Writer

The final element suggested for how to read with purpose is to read like a writer. The MFA guide shares some helpful tips on how to engage with texts, including writing book reviews (yes!), doing short critical analyses of small portions of the texts, responding to entire genres after reading many texts within them, or responding to a favorite author’s corpus after reading much of it. All of these strategies are interesting and helpful in different ways, and I plan to try them at varying points. Some, like responding to a genre or to an author’s corpus, will be much longer projects taking quite a bit of time, but they certainly seem like valuable pursuits to me. I write book reviews regularly, of course, so that will remain a staple. And I spent 9 years of college and graduate school writing critical analysis papers on literature, so while I’m not exactly “eager” to return to the student role, I do understand and respect the benefits of doing this and, who knows, I may come up with some interesting essays that can move beyond my own little journal.

Build Your Community

The third and final element of “living like a writer” is to build a community that will fulfill the needs of Critique, Accountability, Support, and Advice or Apprenticeship. I don’t really know where to begin with this part, yet. I’m not sure if I would work best with an online community of writers or a local, in-person group. I don’t know who to ask or how to work with them. I’m essentially nowhere with this component, unfortunately, but I know that as I get further into my work, I’m going to need this. So, if you’re a writer reading this right now and you, too, are looking for a writing community, perhaps we can become that for each other. Taking all of this into consideration, the next step is to come up with a way to hold myself accountable and to track (and applaud or reassess) my accomplishments from week-to-week. I have a “Goal Sheet” which is provided by the DIY MFA book, and that I think will serve my purposes pretty well. Ultimately, I hope to write 6 days a week (is that too much? Too little? I have no idea.) Each day will carry a goal of 2-hours writing and/or 4-pages (is this too much? Too little? I have no idea!). The way I plan to respond to each writing session is as follows:

  • Date:
  • Input Variable:
  • Words:
  • Time:
  • How It Felt:

Most of those should be pretty self-explanatory, but a note on “Input Variable.” This is something I mentioned above, regarding “controlling your environment.” This is something that might change after a few weeks’ of trying it. For example, writing at home versus writing somewhere public. Writing in the morning versus writing at night. Writing with music versus without, etc. It is important to set the environment intentionally and then, every so often, make a change if the current environment is not working (but make just one change at a time, and try it for at least 2-3 weeks before changing again).My plan now is to post once per week with the above WIP Goal Sheet. At the moment, I’m thinking of referring to it as simply “Writing Reflection.” I might also keep a spreadsheet of this information on my computer for easy access and filtering/sorting. The public accountability aspect is apparently important, though, so as I set goals and make progress, accounting for that process, for the misses, for the lulls and the over-achieving days, will be part of the “Weekly Writing Reflection.”

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