Tomorrow morning I present at my very first conference. I’m on the grown up side of podium! About now I’m grateful for Second Wind, and my thesis reading. Sometimes MFA readings are treated like a vanity exercise. But I’m about to face a room of people tomorrow three hours before I officially wake up. And I don’t even feel *that* nervous. Weird. Whereas my first reading was an exorcism.The entire week beforehand I was a wreck.
I admit one of the reasons I've always wanted to write and teach is the travel. Here I am! At the AmericInn in Mankato, Minnesota. No, it's not France (yet). But if you check out the link above, my interest in the area will become apparent. Besides, for me, a huge double room at a place with a pool paid for by the U counts as vacation. (AND take out Chinese. AND cable).
Right now it feels good to have who I want to be (writer) pay for a trip. People are interested in what I'm doing. Kind of nice after years and years of people caring about the food I brought to their table.
I co-own a difficult dog. He is our neurotic co-pilot. I worry that I helped morph many of his saner attributes into something no longer sane, all the while trying—with patience and persistence—to quell his interest in barking at humans, pigeons, dogs and plastic bags. I wish I knew his before-us time. Then I could chart his course in the last year and rest assured that our training is doing him some good.
I should first credit Monte with his lovable qualities before I proceed to sully his reputation over the interwebs. He is an amazingly intuitive and courteous dog. He will can jump up to my lap and place his paws on my arm when he senses the twinge of existential despair. He knows what’s up and how to fix it.
Monte will gladly accept visitors into our house, even the dog trainer who came on a house to meet him. He treats our cats with begrudging respect. And he doesn’t pester the 50 gallons of water holding our fish. He won’t tear the window blinds or scratch the hardwood. He squeals in his sleep when he’s dreaming. His brown eyes will make a warm puddle of your heart.
Monte can elevate my blood pressure like nobody’s business. He is very dog reactive. It took us a while to notice this. When we adopted him, all 50 lbs. of his 2+ year old emaciated black lab mix self, we noticed he was a leash puller. He wanted to go, and he was taking us with him. He would, on the other hand, approach other dogs with the curiosity and good intentions—but elevated emotions— in much the same way a kid might approach the ice cream truck. There would be tail wagging but an eventual paw swipe at the smaller dogs or a lunge at the larger dogs. Now, during walks with our numbnut, this behavior is more than I can handle. Has our discouraging his dog greeting (because he gets overwhelmed) reinforced his belief that all dogs are bad and that, when we tenderly try a meet-and-greet, he believes it appropriate to jump and swipe? Oh Sisyphus!
Above all else, it is embarrassing to have a dog that is inhospitable to some of our neighbors, while he slobbers and wags his tails at others. He adores the soft-spoken, aloof neighbor, who memorized Monte’s name, birth marks and habits before he could recognize my face or before I could even learn his name. Monte loves the children that play in our courtyard, who kick the soccer ball and proclaim their bravery in the face of slobbering dogs. He likes the constantly revolving line of fans at our local RedBox. He is angry at anyone who might be banging around under the hood of their cars or watering their lawns when we walk by. He doesn’t like if someone is listening to headphones or on their bicycle. He is angry when someone comes out from around a corner. He is elated at squirrels. He cowers at thunder and if someone slams the door downstairs. His agoraphobia has manifested itself not as the inability to leave the apartment, but rather with the inability to manage the barrage of sensory information he encounters outside. And I thought walking your dog was supposed to be calming and regenerative.
So we enrolled Monte is a Growl class. And he was a super star. I was not a super star. I was a blubbering fool, disappointed when Monte wouldn’t make eye contact and felt like jumping up and down at other dogs. I was a mess simply because I couldn’t stand the anxiety of holding in my anxiety enough to make sure Monte didn’t see that I was agitated. Turned out, I needed a Growl class for humans and Monte needed to stay home and eat bacon and watch Days of our Lives. I think that this human class I need to go find might be filed in the yellow pages under “therapy” or “support group”.
In Growl, the dog trainers told us to sing “jingle bells” to ourselves when approaching another dog, so as not to transfer the anxiety or tension through the leash to our dog. There’s a lot of talk of the leash being the emotional tether—the only thing “connecting” you to your dog. My tension tells Monte when to be tense. My relaxation tells Monte when to relax. My tension is high when I’m tense about making sure I relax enough. The trainers wouldn’t be able to help me if they knew I’m too worried about singing jingle bells and sacrificing one small bit of my attention from him to even remember why I’m supposed to be singing jingle bells in the first place.
It’s been 9 months since we adopted Monte. With excellent precision—if I have the timing right—I can navigate the most stress-inducing dog walk-past on the narrowest of sidewalks while Monte maintains eye contact and prepares to receive a treat. Food motivates. But motivational slogans and commands and food-giving is both exhausting and habit forming. Sometimes it doesn’t even work. Will Monte ever not need treats to walk like a reasonable, obedient and calm dog? Will I ever trust the dog? Will he ever trust me?
What did writers do before word processing? For one, we repeated ourselves a lot more. As I revise my book I am discovering my crutch words, how I repeat not just in a sentence or in a paragraph (typo) but over the course of 300 pages (tic). I couldn’t finish Anne Rice due to her abuse of the phrase “preternatural skin.” I mean, I wasn’t looking for much, just some vampire paperback action. But even so, I got so irritated I couldn’t read. I’m determined to avoid a similar mistake.
Enter the "Find" tool, which let me know how fond I am of "documenting." I love "to document." Tasks are "documented." So are people. I even found a "documented are," the passive voice version creating a double faux pas. What's eerie is that I've written these chapters at different times over the past four years. My writing might have changed but the obsession with documenting remaints.
I know some of my crutches even as I type them. I have banned myself from the phrase "truth be told" even I have the impulse to start every third sentence this way. I lean on "now," "then" and "so" as (lame) transitions. I'll allow myself this indulgence once in a while, but I try to be sparing.
"Find" next informed me I overuse the phrase "I confess."
"Difficult" was the next to go. Originally I was searching for the word "cult," to make sure I didn't make the same Yearning for Zion joke twice. "Difficult" turned up about every fifth page. It was like finding out one in five people is an alien.
And I have a problem with inserting too many clever, quippy similes, which are like a stinky cheese——delightful in small doses, but if overindulged, impact the bowels.
Then there's when a writer uses the "only once per novel word" twice. For instance, you only get to describe a character's neck as resembling a puggaree once. A favorite writer of mine had this sort of error in her latest novel, and I gasped as if she had just stepped up to accept a PEN Faulkner in a menstrual stained skirt. Where was the editor?
Alas, It's commonly mourned how the days of Maxwell Perkins level editing are long gone. Every time someone reads my book they catch something. But I'm the final gatekeeper. Just because the editor signs off doesn't mean I should
Musings on the travails of three Montana MFA graduates. Faced with the unsettling future(s) of to-be-determinedism, we seek plans, jobs, and constant distractions. We hope to share the above in all of its uncensored glory here. For you.
Your Hosts: 3 Montana MFA grads (Trina B., Kelly F. and Laurie W.)