MFA in LA, Part II: Climbing

My first day back in the Evergreen State after returning from the first residency for my MFA in Creative Writing, I went for a short hike in the Cascade foothills.

Southern California’s beautiful…but man, I missed THIS.

As I headed up the trail, I glimpsed a cliff through the woods, and hearing voices, stopped to look. Of course: a climbing group was gathering at the base. I couldn’t make out their words, but I assumed they were talking about routes, or gear, or who was going to try what. Since I’m a hiker, not a climber, I headed on up the trail, silently wishing them safe fun.

Then it hit me: that giddiness from the steep learning curve of my first residency? That wasn’t just fear of inadequacy or excitement over reaching new levels in my art–though yes, it was also both. That curve is even steeper than I’d thought. And what’s really happening is, as a writer, I’m trading hiking for cliff-scaling.

For the past 25 years, I’ve been step-by-cautious step, trudging up a marked path…

Granted, that trail can get plenty gnarly, and it has!

…but now, I’m going vertical. Straight up. I’m trying things I’ve never tried as a writer, and I’m all in. No more dabbling, fitting writing in where I can, taking whole seasons off. No more excuses. I’m learning craft, and my teachers are going to expect craft back.

If you’ve spent any time in Wing’s World, you’ll know I love to be on TOP of cliffs, but the idea of climbing them makes me nauseous. True to form, once I’d reached the top of the little mountain I was hiking up, I got as close to the edge of the cliff-top as I could…

Note knee at bottom right

…that same cliff those climbers were preparing to scale. And I gave myself this little pep-talk:

“Yes, you’re spending a huge amount of money and time to learn to write the kind of book you most want to read. But you have new tools and a crew now, you’re all roped up, and you get to spend the next 2 years discussing routes and gear and who’s going to try what. Yes, you might fall, but you won’t die, and your crew will help you find your way back up.”

(or words to that effect)

If you look closely at the bottom of that cliff, you’ll see them there: my imaginary writing crew.

Now imagine me halfway up that cliff, scared to death, but finding my route. Here we go.

MFA in LA, Part I: Small-Island Woman Hits the Big City

The first afternoon of my shiny-new Masters in Creative Writing residency in Culver City, a worried-looking man at the bus stop I was walking past stopped me, in halting English, with a question. Based on his appearance, I guessed he had immigrated from central Africa…but when his English failed, he tried a nice, fluent Spanish–and there we found a common place to converse about bus routes (and the fact that I, an out-of-towner, knew less than he did).

“Now that was an LA moment,” I thought. And that’s why I’m here: for the writing instruction, yes–but even more for the moments I cannot experience via Zoom.

Greater Los Angeles is a stunning place, in all the meanings of that word.

just your average Culver City yard

Since I’m here in full Writer Mode, I’m noticing every way that I’m being stunned, mostly on my 2-mile, twice-daily walks between the campus of Antioch University Los Angeles and the wonderful friends who are hosting me. Starting with these astounding ficus trees, planted down multiple Culver City streets…

Must…build…treehouse!

…whose roots are painfully constrained by concrete, and yet–they tower.

I’m so sorry, O Great One!

Since I’m entirely on foot, thanks be, I only have to deal with traffic when I cross the street. But this vehicle caught my eye as an embodiment of SoCal culture:

The decal on the window reads, “It’s always been about style!” Uh huh.

Antioch U itself is housed in a stunningly corporate-looking building, one of a cluster offering office space to such stunningly _____ (insert your own adverb here) corporations as Tik-Tok.

I still don’t get TikTok, but then I’m 60, so I guess that’s the point.

I’ve never worked in a building like this, but this scene through a window on the ground floor tells me that at least someone in there has a good sense of humor:

Yikes. Tough day at work.

Being, y’know, corporate and all, the building-cluster is thoroughly landscaped…

See that one tiny blooming white iris? I felt a kinship.

…and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I found this Pacific Northwestern sister, this madrona tree, literally chained to a concrete block.

Makes me want to rescue her, like that scene in Harold & Maude (go see it if you haven’t)

I have no critique of Angelenos or anyone else who chooses to live in a megalopolis. There’s just so much here here, it takes my breath away. So I’m finding special comfort in whatever feels familiar–not in that creepy, chained-down-madrona way, but like these adorable turtles…

Sorry, buddies, I don’t have any treats for you!

…in the grotto pool of the Catholic cemetery I cross through on my walks to & from campus.

candles burning inside for, in this case, all fathers on Fathers Day

In the end, everyone wants to feel at home, whatever home means, right? Which is a good thing to be pondering as I launch into a brand-new writing project with some brand-new helpers who come from places so very, very different from my little island. In the end, we all want comfort, whether that means a shiny sports car, an untethered tree…or just a sweet cat to lie on our tummy.

my friends’ kitty Drizzle

Until Part II, may comfort be with you!

Write On Time: Kismet Edition

Okay, “kismet” sounds a bit too Greek. How ’bout serendipity? (Wikipedia tells me its origins are…Sanskrit?!) But I love the sound of the word, and I love that I get to re-start this blog in its post-travel mode (done with Road Trips for now!) with a happy nod to…serendipity.

One week after our return from Road Trip XI, with my to-do list nicely underway (groceries purchased–check; garden prepped–check; car vacuumed–check; washed & waxed? Nope, too much pollen in the air)…

no idea where all that pollen’s coming from!

…I EMBARKED UPON A NEW NOVEL.

That’s how it felt, honestly: caps locked & loaded. Normally, I’d take months or years thinking through a plot idea, then writing some character back stories, dallying with questions about theme, before diving into a very…thorough…outline. No actual writing, no scenes, until, you know…it was TIME.

But come June, I’m kicking off the pursuit of my Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. My plan is for the rigor of that program to compel me through the production of a brand-new novel at a speed I’ve never contemplated before. Which means that by June 1, I need a 20-page (max) writing sample for workshopping purposes.

During that first week home (while vacuuming the car and weeding the garden), I let the raw ingredients of plot and character, theme and narrative device roil freely around in my brain. Then, one week ago I sat down at this computer and began spooning the resulting chunky soup onto this screen.

Four days later, a friend loaned me her library copy of a book I’d never heard of: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. “It’s due back on May 21,” she said, “so read it fast, or just go ahead and return it if you don’t like it, okay?”

I noticed the book was written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel I did not care for. But I trusted my friend’s recommendation on this one. Cue the serendipity.

Turns out, far from being a novel, this book is a master class for writers. Especially writers at the beginning of a project. Especially me. Yes. This book, I’m pretty sure, was written for me, right now.

Already, only a third through his book, Saunders has given me new perspective on every important facet of writing. Here are some of my notes on what he says about character:

he says that the more thoroughly the reader knows a character, the less likely she is to judge her harshly. The writer becomes like God, substituting love (empathy) for judgement. I love that idea.

…about plot:

“Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.” (p. 153)

…about theme and narrative device:

“…that’s what an artist does: takes responsibility.”  “The writer has to write in whatever way produces the necessary energy” to move the reader. “It’s hard to get any beauty at all into a story. If and when we do, it might not be the type of beauty we’ve always dreamed of making.” (p. 105)

…and this bit about narrative voice that pierced me–in a good way, if you can imagine that:

“…how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be…This writer may turn out to bear little resemblance to the writer we dreamed of being. She is born, it turns out, for better or worse, out of that which we really are: the tendencies we’ve been trying, all these years, in our writing and maybe even in our lives, to suppress or deny or correct, the parts of ourselves about which we might even feel a little ashamed.” (p. 106)

It’s way, way, WAY too early to say what my next book will become. But the fact that I was given a master teacher in its very first week feels like an excellent sign.

Plus, a library book is a whole lot cheaper than an MFA.

Just kidding. I’m still going for the MFA.

Curious, though–anyone else out there have one of these joy-striking examples of serendipity to share?

Emergency Dogblog, or, A Dog’s Gotta Do What a Dog’s Gotta Do

Umm….excuse me?

Maya here. Again.

I know, I know. This isn’t my blog. It belongs to my hooman–y’know, Whatsername. The one with the treats.

Pictured: Whatsername’s hand

Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but ol’ Whatsername’s been pretty much missing in action lately, blogwise. Something about “I’m not really feeling the blogging right now,” or “It’s complicated.” Whatever that means.

So I’m stepping in. Y’know, just to keep this spot warm till Whatsername comes back to curl up in it. I can make myself comfy anywhere.

Hey haters, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

So. That’s it, really. I’m just here to say–stick around, ok? My hooman’s probably just out back sniffing something reeeeeeeally interesting. She’ll be back when she’s good & ready.

But if not–you got me, right?

Who’s a good girl?

“Are You My Mommy?” This Poem Wants to Know.

DOES ANYONE KNOW WHO WROTE THIS?

Bent at the beginning

in the seed, the corm,

we grow taller toward the light

carrying upward the grace of our leaves

and with it our canker

our wont to be mistaken

self-absorbed

even cruel in the face of kindness,

burr and thorn as much a part of us as any fragrant rose.

(Photo by Tico, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I started the habit of reciting a Morning Poem right after the election of 2016. I found I needed to fill my mind with something beautiful and deep at the start of the day , before exposing it to the news or even email.

I’ve had other poems–longer ones, more intense–but something about the brevity and purity of this one has stuck it with me now for a year. Only problem is, I’ve forgotten the poet! And as I tend to treat my books of poetry like library books, sending them on instead of keeping them, I can’t look it up.

I’ve tried Googling the first line; it yielded mostly suggestions for growing corn.

Not quite what I had in mind. (photo by doc(q)man, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What I love about this poem is the way it reminds me of those dark/light, yin/yang pairing: imperfection yet striving, pride yet humility. Both, and. Yes. Onward we go.

Thorns are part of the deal. (Photo by Parvin, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not giving this poem up until another suggests taking its place. But I really want to credit the poet! So I’m hoping someone can step forward and help me here.

Still, while we’re on the topic: I’d also love to hear other suggestions for a poem with which to begin the day. Hit me!

Yes, It’s a Promo. That Does Happen Here Occasionally.

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This Friday, Jan. 22 @ 5:30 PCT (that’s 8:30 Eastern), please join me via Zoom for a reading from my YA novel Altitude. Authors Kip Greenthal and Laurie Parker will follow. Thanks to Nikyta Palmisani for organizing this event, “Hygge in the Heart”! See you there in your little Zoom square!

https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https*3A*2F*2Fus02web.zoom.us*2Fj*2F85228057303*3Fpwd*3DQS9rVkQ4LzNiL1cwdEZBRzg4MkY0dz09*26fbclid*3DIwAR3FC2p9UsPlFAQBRvzdO3GSN6ay… See More

Memo From Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion: Have I Got a Quarantine Book For You!

For a novelist with a blog, I gotta say, I RARELY blog about my novels. But watching some eagles wheel in the sky the other day, it hit me: could there be better binge-reading during a national lockdown than a trilogy about someone who can FLY?

So The Flying Burgowski is written for young adults. Even better! Now you can escape Earth’s quotidian clutches AND get back in touch with your inner teenager.

Who hasn’t yearned to fly?

On Dalby Island in Washington, Jocelyn Burgowski is turning fourteen, and life sucks. Her mom’s an alcoholic. Her dad just re-married; her brother is a butt. Only Jocelyn’s flying dreams keep her going: they seem so real!

Then, on her birthday, those dreams come true.

Learning her new powers in secret, Joss revels in the freedom we all long for. But when she and her brother are sent to live with Mom, Jocelyn is faced with a choice. Must she sacrifice her powers to save her mother? Does she have the strength to heal the damage caused by secrets of the past?

Or maybe you’ve been living in close quarters with said teens (or any children, age 11 and up) and they’ve read everything in the house, including the labels on your cleaning products? Great! Gift ’em my series…and yourself with the bliss of uninterruption.

What if someone hated you just for who you are?

On tiny Dalby Island, fourteen year-old Jocelyn Burgowski has a hidden enemy. Her flying power is no longer joyous and free—somebody wants to bring the Flyer down. But can Joss fight a force she doesn’t understand? Can she protect her powers without revealing her secret? And can she open her heart to the promise of real love when love itself could be her enemy?

During this period of pandemic, I’m offering a special deal: personalized, autographed copies of MY ENTIRE TRILOGY SENT DIRECTLY TO YOUR HOME for $25. (Normally, $35!)

What does “To thine own self be true” really mean, anyway?

After a summer of heartbreak and betrayal slumped into an epically rotten year, 16 year-old Jocelyn (The Flying) Burgowski is clawing her way back to her confident Flyer self. Leaving family and friends on little Dalby Island to face junior year on the mainland, Joss wonders if flying has permanently cut her off from the deep relationships she yearns for. The last person who knew about her power almost destroyed it—so how’s a Flyer supposed to find true love and friendship?

How does this work? Email me, gretchen.wing@gmail.com , with your postal address and the name of the person you’d like the autograph made out to. I’ll put the books in the good ol’ U.S. Mail, while you send me a check for $25 (plus a tip for postage if you feel so inclined). And…voila! You’ve just bought yourself the perfect escape.

Of course if you want the books immediately you can download them on Kindle, or wait a tad longer for print copies from Amazon. Even better, use this link to have your favorite Indie bookstore to order them for you! 

Listed prices will apply in that case. But if you want the set for $25 with my personal notation…you know what to do!

Hey, you know you’ve been having WAY too much screen time these days. Take a break with a book or three.

If you’re a regular reader of Wing’s World, don’t worry–I’m not suddenly going all-out Promo Mode. I just happen to believe that my books were made for this moment–and I should know, right? I made ’em. I so look forward to hearing from you!

Ironman, Shmironman: New Zealand’s Coast to Coast World Multisport Championship

This is THE weekend. As I’m writing this, the countdown clock for the start of the Coast to Coast is down to 2 hours something. It starts on Friday, Feb. 7. Today is Thursday, Feb. 6. So it starts in two hours–how??? Oh yeah–New Zealand time. Already tomorrow there. No wonder those buggers are so quick.

Photo by Diversions.nz

Actually, the race that starts Friday is the “easy” race: competitors take TWO days to race across the skinny part of NZ’s South Island, from Coast to Coast, on foot, bicycle, and kayak. And by “easy” I mean “less insane.” Here’s the C2C’s own description of the race course:

Competitors leave on foot from the black sands and lush windswept landscapes on the West Coast, running 2.2km inland to their waiting bikes. They then follow the Taramakau River 50km to the foothills of the Southern Alps where they switch their bikes for runners and the first true test of the course.

Photo by Eventfinda.nz

The 30.5km run is mainly off trail with the rocky riverbed often the only direct line up the valley. Competitors encounter multiple river crossings with frigid crystal clear water and an elevation gain of nearly 800m on their way to Goat Pass and the start of the descent.

Photo by NZ Herald

With the very fastest athletes taking nearly 3 hours the run is as much a test of co-ordination and strength as it is outright speed.
A short 15km ride follows before the second jewel in the course. The mighty Waimakariri River. 70kms of braids and a stunning gorge, the river section is for many both the highlight and the crux of the race. The water flows swiftly in places and mixes long calm sections with rapids up to grade 2 in size.

The racer I followed in 2017, Josie, finishing the 70k kayak portion (my photo)

It takes competitors from the heart of the Southern Alps out on to the Canterbury Plains where just one final 70km ride stands between competitors and the finish on the East Coast at the New Brighton Pier amongst a vibrant beachside festival.

Map by NZTourismGuide.nz

Got that? Run to ride to run to ride to paddle to ride. For a total of 238 kilometers. That’s over 147 miles. The actual World Multisport Championship part of the C2C doesn’t start till Saturday–at 0:dark-thirty. That’s the race they call The Longest Day. And you can guess why.

I first learned about this race when my family and I spent a year in New Zealand, back in the 1990s. I came to see multisport racing in general, and the Coast to Coast in particular, as emblematic of the Kiwi approach both to sport and to life. (Notice how much those two are entwined? Yeah, all those cliche-spouting coaches are pretty much right.)

Which is why the novel I’m writing is set in NZ, and features a race much like the C2C. And why my heart is now with the athlete who let me “ride along” with her crew, back in 2017, so I could see and feel the race up close. You can read that story here.

What, you thought I was going to DO the Longest Day? Do I seem that crazy tough athletic to you? (If yes, ummm…thanks? But no thanks!)

In 2017, Josie, the athlete I followed–a mum with two daughters–finished the Longest Day in just over 15 hours, fourth woman! This year, Josie’s going for it again! Over the course of her Saturday, our Friday, I’ll be checking in with the course-tracker app to follow her progress up and over the mountains, through dark of night, fording crystalline streams…

…Sorry. Easy to get carried away. I’ll just stop here with: Go, you crazy racers! GO JOSIE!

Now back to my nice, comfy laptop…

Josie’s finish in 2017. Have a beer! (Photo by C2C.nz)

“Pen” Is a Verb Too–But “Addiction” Is Only a Noun

Back when my sons were young enough to go shopping with me, they used to work together to protect me from myself. Especially at places like Office Depot.

“Stay out of the pens section, Mom,” they would warn. “You know you don’t need more.”

Ahhhh…pens! Ink pens, in rainbow colors! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways brands.

When I was little, maybe 7-9, I loved those felt-tipped Flairs the best. I used them to draw. My drawings tended to feature the four Queens and Kings from the Narnia series–Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie–with myself drawn in for good measure. Queen Gretchen. Every one of us outfitted in rich, royal colors. Sorry, I didn’t keep any of those drawings, but here are the Flairs…

Back then I bought these pens one at a time. A pack like this would have sent me into paroxysms.

Then I started journaling. As I’ve blogged about in the past, “journal” may not be an official verb yet, but it is to me! I started in 1975, and now, 44 years later, I’m still going.

A couple years of my life in here…

Flairs, I decided, weren’t as great for writing as they were for drawing. That’s when Sheaffer cartridge pens entered my life.

Remember these beauties? (Photo courtesy of Harvey Levine, MyAntiquePens.com)

Oh, those colors! Peacock Blue, Emerald Green…that delicious, chocolately Brown. My favorite journaling moments in those days involved switching colors when one cartridge ran empty, then watching the gradation of hues cross the page with my thoughts.

But boy, did I have some inky fingers in those days. And I doubt my teachers were too thrilled with my peacock-blue blots.

Somewhere along the line, though, the Sheaffers’ negative outweighed their glorious positives. Too many leaks, ink explosions, stained fingers. I got practical.

In my post on Journaling from 2013, I sang the praises of the Uniball. I still love those, but for more uniform, blot-free, downright sexy flow across the page, I now pledge my allegiance to the Pilot P-700.

Purple, and green? Be still, my heart!

After buying myself this multicolor pack, I had to go get my latest notebook and write. Did I have anything profound to say? Nope. I just lusted after the feel of that inky page-skating. And guess what? I got to capture that moment, if for no other reason than to laugh at myself a few years hence.

Don’t we all need a little more self-mockery in our lives?

Yeah…but now I’m gonna need a bigger steamer trunk.

Do you have a favorite pen, or paper for that matter? What writing implements speed up your heart?

A Writer’s Greatest Gifts: Time and Critique. So Why Not Writeaway?

Taking the ferry home from the Orcas Island LitFest last weekend, I could not get to my notebook fast enough. Twenty hours of writer-panels (I wasn’t able to attend the full weekend) had left my brain so full of ideas and challenges for my own writing that I could hardly speak to anyone. Now, a week’s worth of hard writing work later (journaling, deep character background, pitch practice, scene revision, and everything in between), I am so grateful for the chance to have attended.

And I want to remind my fellow writers of what a self-gift it is to stop, drop and enroll in SOMETHING every now and then, just to realign the wheels (and unmix the metaphors). Literary festivals are great for this. Writing conferences, even better.

But best of all…if you can afford it…is a Writeaway. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you why you can afford it.

First of all, what is a Writeaway? It’s a Writing Getaway–the brainchild of my friends and fellow writers, Mimi Herman and John Yewell. In the words of their website, “We provide writing instruction, fabulous food and company in beautiful places, and a safe place for you to take a writing vacation with your muse, and maybe a good friend.”

Yes, you read that right: Writing instruction. Fabulous food. Beautiful location. Support, personalized critique, a new writing community. Time to work…and do all those things my own brain needed to do after only 20 hours at a LitFest.

In case you need some creds: Mimi & John are better than good writers; they are passionate teachers of writing. (Big difference, right?) Mimi is the 2017 North Carolina Piedmont Laureate and a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. Since 1990, she has engaged over 25,000 students with her warm and insightful teaching. A Warren Wilson MFA alum, her writing has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic and other journals.John is a writer and editor with an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University and twenty years of experience in journalism.

John & Mimi: ready to read, write & listen (and drink wine)

The shiniest, most awe-inspiring Writeaways of Mimi and John are held in castles in France and Italy, like these:

OK, you can close your mouth and get back to writing now. Dinner’s at six.

But they also offer domestic Writeaways in North Carolina, where they live.

Carolina-ish enough for ya?

Don’t live in North Carolina or feel like flying there? Mimi & John also offer the best choice of all (in my opinion): a Build-your-own Writeaway. 

“Have you ever dreamed of getting away to your favorite place to write – with friends and family, your writing group, your book club, high school pals, or colleagues from your creative writing program? Choose your own adventure and we’ll arrange housing, workshops, conferences, and fabulous food and drink for you and four or more of your favorite people. Let us know a little about yourself, and we’ll start planning.”

I can kind of, SORT of, imagine what it might be like to read the above and NOT think: HEAVEN! Yeah, I suppose some writers are the solitary type–and bless them. 

But if your Muse comes alive with a little stimulation BEFORE the necessary writerly solitude…oh, my. Why wouldn’t you consider a Build-your-own Writeaway?

Because of the cost, you say. Of COURSE there’s a cost. But Mimi & John are so passionate about what they do, they’re willing to work with writers to keep the budget as modest as possible. No castles. No fancy digs. Homemade meals. Whatever it takes to get you there. The time, expertise and inspiration is what you’d be paying for. If you’ve ever gone to a writing conference and come away thinking, “Well, about half of the workshops were worthwhile,” the Writeaway is the perfect answer, because it’s all tailored to YOU.

So I encourage you to check out this Writeaway Link for yourself. (And just in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being paid to advertise. I’m just a big Mimi & John fan.)

If you do end up doing yourself the favor of signing up, though–please drop my name! We’ll all be thrilled.