Crystal Springs, July 13th, 19XX
You dropped me off, then they opened the store and I bought this post card and some gum. This is the lake. We get to swim tomorrow.
I went to camp a few times as a kid and the part of it that frightened me most was having to share a room, or worse yet, a bunk bed with a stranger. It wasn’t like I wasn’t used to sharing. I shared a room with my sister when we were both in single digit years. For the most part sharing with her was okay, but at times that sharing involved a carefully thought out line of dirty clothes down the middle of the room or fights about who had to clean what. I remember when I finally got my own room after my brother went away to college, that I couldn’t sleep very well for days and I would sneak back to my old room and creep in and watch to see if my sister was having the same problem. She never was. I think she was more than glad to be rid of me. But camp was a whole different story. I was painfully shy and prone to wetting the bed so I coached myself the whole drive there on choosing the bottom bunk and obsessed about getting there early enough to choose but late enough to not be the first kid.
Camp turned out to be all right, I always got a bottom bunk since bottom bunks weren’t cool and I didn’t drink any water the whole time so I never wet the bed. The part I didn’t consider was the fact that I might actually make friends. I was so focused on the frightening aspect of camp that I never thought about how good it could turn out or how fun it could be.
It was the same for me when applying to graduate school. I focused on the amount of work I would have to do, the time commitment I would have to make, the amount of money it would cost. Basically, I focused on all of the negatives and coached myself on how to get through them. Even when I finally chose a graduate school, all I could think about was the fact that I might not fit in. That if I didn’t choose the right adviser, I might not learn what I hoped to learn or finish what I hoped to finish. And when I found out that during the residency I would have to share a room with a stranger, it brought camp right back to me and although I didn’t really have to worry much about wetting the bed anymore, I was worrying about when and where I could get dressed and if I snored and if she would want to talk to me or if she would ignore me. In fact, I was so preoccupied with sharing a room that I forgot to consider the fact that I might learn a great deal at the residency, I might make friends, and it might change my life.
Goddard, January 5th, 20XX
I’m going to write you a post card every day that I’m here. Email too. You’ll get the email before this, but you’ll think this is cuter. This is a mountain, I might snowshoe later.
Goddard was rather a leap for me. I was used to excelling in traditional educational models where grades ruled and my near perfect SAT’s and 4.0 GPA was hard and respected data. When presented with Goddard’s alternate model where grades seemed to be subjective and achievement was not measured on a 4-point scale, I was skeptical. I had gone to the “Get to Know Goddard Day” the previous July and listened to Paul (the director of the MFA program) explain the Goddard educational philosophy to a large group of very disparate people. He noted that we were adults. We all wanted to be here. We were all ultimately responsible for our actions and or products and with the help of Goddard, not only would we get an actual MFA but we would also learn a great deal about writing, about each other and about ourselves. I was interested mainly because it sounded like it could be extremely focused but still challenging. And I am always interested in meeting all kinds of different people (though not necessarily rooming with them). But I was not totally convinced. Without grades, how would we know how well we had done? After his scripted talk, he went outside to one of the picnic tables to smoke. A group of us followed him out, at a distance of course, as Paul is rather intimidating. He sat down and noticed us milling about and motioned us over. I sat next to him while he chain-smoked, preparing for the next lecture and tour of campus. One of the others asked him question after question about the academics and the advisers and the requirements and after a few careful answers Paul told him that really the most important thing at Goddard was the writing. Your novel, your play, your poem. Everything else builds towards and off of your writing and how to make it better. None of the other programs I had visited ever talked about what you as a writer wanted to accomplish. They talked only about the classes you could take and the professors you’d be working with. Even in Iowa (the most famous of all writing MFA’s), it was more about the who rather than the what. My desire was to write and write well. I wanted to get those stories inside of my head out on to a page in such a way as to allow their full potential to shine. Goddard was right for me. I was completely focused on getting in and working hard, but that didn’t mean that I wanted to share a bunk bed.
Goddard, January 6th, 20XX 6:41am
Good Morning You,
Day 2 is here. It’s 6:41 right now. I’ve been awake off and on all night. Finally gave up sleep and took a shower (a nice long one) at 6am. The woman next door, whom I told you was crying, is really sick, I am staying well away from her. She is coughing like she has TB. It only occurred to me this morning to offer her some cold medicine (cause I brought some, after Spain, you NEVER know!)
My roommate is very into schedules, wanting to know when I sleep and get up etc. I think she hasn’t ever had a roommate or even a boy/girl-friend before. Though she is nice enough (tall, thin, and pretty). Did I already mention she works at MIT. She is managing editor for the tech journal there.
I met some nice people at the first event last night. It was basically a mini-intro to Goddard and a get to know the other new students. I think my adviser might be Sarah Schulman. Look her up on Amazon. We aren’t supposed to know who our advisers are yet, but she came up to me last night, looked at my name tag and said “You’re Edrie. You’re mine. See you tomorrow.” Scary. One of the advisers I met is named Rachel. She was clearly a Ralph or Ray at some point. I spent a long time talking to her, she is really into experimental fiction and other odd forms of writing, she kept mentioning people you liked to read and was impressed when I mentioned some too. Thanks for preparing me so well!
Sarah Schulman was indeed my first adviser, and although I was frightened of her reputation, I was excited to be pushed into writing better. I didn’t know, however, just how much of a push I would be getting. At our first meeting she asked me what I liked to write. Creative Nonfiction was my answer. I had come to Goddard hoping to put a memoir together of all of the pieces I had written on my family. Sarah shook her head and tapped her pen. “No, you’ll be writing a novel, tell me what it’s about.” Perhaps it was her reputation, or her lack of any sort of smile but I was convinced she must know what she was talking about. I considered nothing but the fact that she saw a novelist in me. What was my novel about? did I have one? She looked at me still tapping her pen and there it was, my novel, on the spot. Plot and characters unfolded in 3.2 minutes, and so began The Porcelain Pig. The details have changed over the two years it took me to write but the theme has remained the same. I am confident I never would have written a novel had Sarah Schulman not told me too and although it took me a long time to be convinced of this, I now know her parting words were true. “Writing a novel will be good for you.”
Goddard, January 6th, 20XX
Did you know I’m writing a novel – or at least I’m going to. I’ll explain more later. Pet Ghia for me. Kisses
That few minutes of one on one meeting with Sarah didn’t just change the direction of my writing, but it set into motion my Goddard experience as a whole. In my advising group were two other women who also came to write creative nonfiction and were also told they would be writing novels. This created a bond for us that has grown, flourished and blended a few more people into the fold. At first we called ourselves Sarah’s Bitches, meaning we would now clearly be doing Sarah Schulman’s bidding, but that name fell away as the fold grew larger. Now we are just a close-knit group of friends who share success and failure, funny adviser comments, and a passion for wine every night of the residency. We are a convergence of souls.
Goddard, July 3rd, 20XX 6:04am
Good Morning You,
Boy is it weird to be back here! That “schedule” girl that was my roommate last semester is back, but I think she hates it and is planning to quit. I have Erin for my roommate this time (the girl from my advising group I was telling you about).
Did you know that Chrissy (Sarah S’s advisee as well), me, and Erin all read I, The Divine last semester? It was my favorite book and we spent the whole first night talking about it with this girl Lori who is a G2 poet (and Chrissy’s roommate). When I told you that book changed my life, you laughed but I told them that and they didn’t. They all agreed it was eye opening and brilliant. See, you should read it!
I don’t think I’ve ever found a place to be me before. It’s weird being an outsider your whole life and then stumbling on a place filled with people like you.
I met my new adviser Maud. She seems nice and her book is really beautiful. I hope she likes my book. (Did you see that! I have a “book”!)
My adviser for my second and third semester was Maud Casey. She was not the scary and demanding Sarah Schulman. Maud was patient and warm; her comments were helpful and direct but always tough and focused. She took what was a haphazard collection of pages loosely tied together with a theme and made it into a real book. By the end of my third semester I felt as if I had written an actual book that someone might someday read, and I could not have gotten there without Maud. She also helped me find some of the books that most influenced my writing. The first was A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami. I had never read Murakami before, so it was rather a shock to read something where the characters were so real that it seemed like memoir but the situations were so bizarre, it seemed like fantasy. I tired to incorporate his ideas into the narrative of my novel. I was also very fond of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Everything about that book is creepy in the extreme, but the character is never portrayed as creepy in any way. He seems normal to all of his friends and even to his own internal monologue. But that supposed normalcy thinly masks horrific tendencies to violence. Since I always wonder how people become the kinds of people who do awful things, it was a great study in character verses circumstance and what comes of that.
My third semester came to be a defining moment in my Goddard career. Not only did I complete a first draft of my novel, but I also faced one of my greatest fears next to wetting the bed at camp, teaching. I knew that a teaching practicum was a part of the Goddard curriculum from the beginning, but had shoved that fact to the back of my mind until the residency prior to the second semester when I took the Teaching Practicum workshop. I am not sure why I always feared teaching except that perhaps I never felt I had anything to teach. How would I teach writing to anyone when I wasn’t even sure I knew what writing was? The setup and execution of the practicum was as much work as the actual classes and the essay I had to write about the experience. I greatly admire anyone who teaches for a living.
I had decided that since I would have to do this practicum that I would go home to North Dakota and do a class for the community. The class turned out very well, but the big moment was actually writing the essay about the experience of teaching. Tying all of my feelings for home together with my feelings for my deceased father and how those two things actually led me into higher education in the first place, changed the way I looked at the practicum. Writing that essay even transformed my novel as I added present circumstances to allow the main character, Grace, and the father character time together that I never had with my father. This made me think even harder about what I was trying to do with the novel I was writing. What did I actually want to say with these characters? I think the first paragraph from my teaching essay says a lot about the direction I finally decided to go in with The Porcelain Pig:
Some memories are close to the surface; others are buried deep within the fabric folds of past experience. For me the memories that are most close to the surface are those of my father. He is with me wherever I go. He offers comfort, reminds me of my manners, councils me when I need guidance. He is vivid within me and, when I write stories about him, vivid on the page. For when we write about those who are gone they are recreated there, in those lines, in that story. Their spirit’s living through memory. We have the power to keep the old young. We have the power to relive the good and to learn from the bad. We have the power to raise the dead with words.
Perhaps the characters in my novel were never real people but parts of them are made up of real experiences. Everything I write is informed and molded by my experiences. More of myself is in my novel then I ever thought possible and more of Goddard is in me then I ever imagined.
Home, June 25th, 20XX 9:10pm
Just a few short hours and we’ll all be back together in lovely Hollister drinking that case of the Three Buck Chuck I just bought. If you need me to bring anything else, just let me know. I have a station wagon after all.
I requested Alison Smith for my adviser and Rebecca for my second reader. I hope that all works out. The book is done but it needs a tough edit… or ten.
I can’t believe this is going to be our last real residency. Let’s stay up late every night, have slumber parties in our PJ’s, and read each others fortunes. I’ll try not to be sad until it is actually over. Can’t wait to see you all!
Semester four was tough. It’s not the paper work or the process paper or the rewriting but the bi-polar emotions of being almost done and being excited by the prospect of graduation and being almost done and being very sad at the prospect of moving on from an unexpectedly wonderful experience. I read a statistic somewhere that after a person turned thirty the number of true friends they will make in the rest of their lives is exactly 1/10 of the number of close friends they had made up until that point. Since it was always hard for me to make friends, after hearing that, I figured I had the couple of friends that I had and that was it. Perhaps people stop taking chances after a certain age and that severely limits their friend potential but I took a chance and Goddard rewarded me with the kinds of friends I had never had. People with whom I shared common interests and understanding. People from all over the world that were open to chance and open to me.
The theme of being open to new things was even stronger in the fourth semester because, for the first time, my novel was read and critiqued by people who had not seen it in anything but its current first-draft state. I had to be open to any possibility from complete loathing to laughter and everything in between. I was scared of what criticism might come because the reputation of my second reader was that of one who was extremely tough and known to not like the kind of subject matter I was attempting. And my adviser was an unknown quantity. I had lucked out with Maud, but would Alison be a lucky break as well?
What I’ve come to expect from Goddard is the unexpected. Everything I feared in the criticism of the novel came to pass but not in the way I expected it. Rebecca was indeed tough to the point of pain, but her comments helped boost me into changes I would not have considered and, since I had enough time to do some revising before I sent the novel to Alison, made a better first draft for her to critique. In the weeks that I waited for Alison’s comments I fretted about the changes I had made and if she would agree with Rebecca in some of the more harsh assessments. I obsessively checked the mail almost from the day I sent the packet and was rewarded finally with some of the most thoughtful and encouraging comments I had received during my time at Goddard. Alison had taken great pains to be meticulous and tough while also respectful. Her comments gave me the courage to tackle the seemingly impossible task of starting a second draft when all I wanted to do was put the novel away and forget about it for a while.
Crystal Springs, July 21st, 19XX
Could you be late picking me up? My friend Russell has to stay longer ‘cause his mom can’t come from Fargo until she gets off work. We made a big fire last night and sang and this girl said I had hair the same color as the fire. See you – but late OK.
Before I even graduated, I was worried about what it will be like without Goddard. It sounds silly, but Goddard provided a framework for me to grow into being a writer. I’ve written one novel (which sold but hasn’t been published) and I know I can write more. I was always able to write, but Goddard, my advisors and my friends allowed me to take that knowledge and internalize it. In fact, I didn’t even call myself a writer until my second semester. When people ask me what I do, I used to tell them that I sometimes write. Now when people ask I tell them, I’m a writer. There is a fundamental difference and that change occurred because of Goddard. Goddard, like camp, was frightening at first and my focus was on the negative. But a shift occurred and I knew that I would complete my requirements and get through the rough parts. I was able to focus on the good and enjoy my experience. I wanted to graduate and looked foreword to it, but if I could be picked up just a little late, have just a few extra hours –I wouldn’t mind.