Archives For life

It’s been a busy and inspiring coupla months. Here’s a little recap of things I saw and did, starting with the AWP Writers’ Conference in Washington, DC, where I was on a couple of panels, did a reading, and got to sign some books at the Rose Metal Press table. Those are my books on the left side of the sign:

My colleague and friend, David Dodd Lee had a book release and art show at Lang Lab. Here he his reading from his latest Ashbury erasure book, surrounded by his fans and collages:

I was thrilled to have my visual essay, “Empty Nest/Emptiness,” published (in full color!!!) in the latest issue of Passages North. It’s 14 pages, something I made when my daughter left for college:

Speaking of my daughter, I got to see Mamma Mia in Bloomington, IN with her and her bestie for her birthday. The next morning I saw the whole cast and crew in the lobby of my hotel!

Colson Freaking Whitehead came to my campus, Indiana University South Bend, and I got to sit in the almost front row. Here he is talking to Darryl Heller of the Civil Rights Heritage Center:

I invited the comic artists Marnie Galloway and Scott Roberts to visit IU South Bend, and the room was full for their artist talks:

Then the poet Steve Henn came to talk to my classes about his new book by Wolfson Press: Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year. Here he is showing off his “tour” T-shirt:

Another visual/collage essay published in Quarterly West!

I already blogged about being the guest author at Butler University’s Litfest and doing a workshop for the Indiana Writers Center, which was an honor and a blast.

And over the weekend, Wordman and I headed to Chicago and saw Lambchop at Lincoln Hall:

Then I got to read at Sunday Salon Series with amazing fellow readers and a fabulous crowd. Here’s Howard Axelrod reading:

Got some partial views of the Navy Pier Ferris wheel from the hotel window:

And made it to the Bean for the first time, and took the requisite selfie:

My 2012 in Pictures

January 5, 2013 — 3 Comments

In 2012, my theme was Live Lovely. And it was a full, lovely year.

I put together this photo collage as part of WordPress’s weekly photo challenge (from, you know, last week), and now that I’m finished I feel like this post gets dangerously close to the sort of blogging I try to avoid: the “here’s a record of my boring life” sort of blog. But pictures are fun, and these are the least boring parts of my year. Hover over for captions.

January 16, 1945
40th letter

Dearest Johnny,

Happy anniversary darling. No matter where you are at this time I want you to hear me saying I love you so. This day means so much to me. To think I married the most wonderful man in the world. You are wonderful you know.

This is how the letter begins. My grandmother wrote it to my grandfather on their second anniversary. She was somewhere in New Jersey; he was somewhere overseas, probably India (he returned from the war with pictures of the Taj Mahal). This letter is one of my favorite things.

For the many years I knew them, my grandparents bickered and yelled and waged war on the volumes of their respective televisions (his in the living room, hers in the kitchen). They engaged in bumper-car battles with their walkers as they fought for the right of way in the hallway. She repeated indignities from the ancient past: “I was never good enough for his parents because I was Irish. And what was so special about Slovaks? His father didn’t even know any English. His mother, I give her credit, taught herself to read the newspaper.”

Usually when my grandmother addressed my grandfather she said, “Oh for god’s sake, John!” And so there is something delightful about seeing it in her left-handed handwriting, as distinct as her voice: “Dearest Johnny.”

Which is why this letter is one of my favorite things.*

Almost three years ago when my grandparents finally had to leave their New Jersey home on the lagoon to be cared for at my uncle’s house in Pennsylvania, my grandfather – he’s appropriately called Grumpus – told me follow him to his room. Usually this meant he wanted us to go through his old boxes of things he couldn’t get himself to throw away and to take anything we might use. Boxes labeled “Calculaters” and filled with cheap and unusable calculators from 1970 to the present. Or “Wacthes” filled with watches from Bristol Myers or Time Life. He was not the greatest speller. This time, though, I followed him as he shuffled down the hall with his walker, and I sensed he something bigger on his mind.

In his room he removed a box from the shelf and said, “I don’t know what do to with this. It’s letters from Marge and me during the war. I should probably just throw them away or burn them.” He looked at me, his eyes full of tears. “But you’re a writer. Maybe you know what to do with them.”

He got lost in thought for a moment and added, “We were just kids. We didn’t know anything.”

Granny and Grumpus died this year, five months apart. I haven’t gone through all the letters yet, but they are part of me as a person and a writer. They and their letters will show up in my stories and novels and blog entries – and my dreams.

All day I went through memories from the day we got married until now. I can picture everything so well. That day we said I do & you squeezed my hand as you said it and how funny you were trying to put my ring on me.
That day was such a happy day…

*Thanks to WordPress for the Daily Post Challenge.

Mother’s Day Love

May 13, 2012 — 5 Comments

Today I witnessed the most intense form of love and gratitude for mothers. I watched my beautiful grandmother die. I watched my mother and her brother care for her round the clock. I watched them administer her medicines and clean her. I watched them stand over her bed and watched my mother stroke her hair as she died.

Yesterday I listened to my mother read her old letters that my grandfather wrote to his “dear Wifey” when he was overseas during WWII. In the letters he said he hoped they would be back together soon and be together forever. They were together until he died this past January, a week shy of their 70th anniversary.

It seems appropriate that my grandmother died this morning, on Mother’s Day. It also happens to be the birthday of her oldest son who died over thirty years ago. We all hope they are having a happy Mother’s Day reunion.

Find a community. You’re in this together.
You’re in this alone.
Be patient.
It takes time to arrive at the right word, the story.
The moment of elation.

DONNA MISCOLTA is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, June 2011). Her story collection Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent was a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in America’s Review, Calyx, Cha: An Asian Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Kartika Review, New Millennium Writings, Raven Chronicles, Conversations Across Borders, and others. She has been awarded residencies from Anderson Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has received numerous grants and awards, including the Bread Loaf/Rona Jaffe Scholarship for Fiction.

Web Page: http://donnamiscolta.com

Read more by and about Donna:

Novel: When the de la Cruz Family Danced

Excerpt of novel at Cha: “A Month in the Tropics”

Short Essay: “Home Is Where the Wart Is

Story at Conversations Across Borders: “Fleeing Fat Allen” (proceeds go to VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts)

How Donna Miscolta Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Donna for saying yes!

1.     Why did you want to become a writer?

The desire to be a writer went unacknowledged by me for much of my life. I had always been a reader and had a reverence for writers. Books were magical and writers were wizards. I thought that you didn’t become a writer. You simply were a writer. Anointed or ordained. Though all through school I did well when it came to writing, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never said writer. Writing was hard. Not hard in the way math was for me ─ the abstraction of it, the way numbers refused to form a language in my head. I felt comfortable with words, but choosing the right ones and arranging them in the best order – that was hard. I thought that to be a writer, writing had to come easy. So I never considered it an option to pursue.

In an almost willful defiance of logic I studied science, obtaining a degree in zoology. I followed up with a master’s degree in education and later one in public administration, trying to figure out what and who to be in life. At age 39, I was employed in the public sector, twelve years married, deeply entrenched in parenthood, and busy as hell, yet, looking for that thing to round out my life. Finally, I acknowledged it — my fascination with words and sentences and how they come together to make stories, my desire and need to play with words on my own, to knit them into narratives, to be a writer.

Trailer for When the de la Cruz Family Danced:

2.     How did you go about becoming a writer?

In July 1993, I attended a reading by Kathleen Alcalá, whom I knew from our membership in the local chapter of a national Latina organization. The reading was on the University of Washington campus, which I had recently learned offered extension classes in creative writing. Hearing Kathleen, someone I actually knew, read a story from a book she had written, inspired me to consider the possibility that I, too, might write a story.

As it turned out, I took one of the last open spots for the fall extension class. My teacher that quarter was Jack Remick. I knew nothing about how to write a story. Yet, I, along with many of my classmates, was resistant at first to the diagrams Jack would draw on the board and his requirement that our stories have an intruder. We thought he was trying to force a formula on us and we, by golly, weren’t going to be formulaic. We were going to be original! What we came to understand was that he was trying to teach us about tension and action and conflict ─ in other words, story.

The much loved and highly esteemed Rebecca Brown was my teacher for the next two quarters. I began to feel more confident about writing. From the time I started this series of classes, I developed the habit of writing every evening after my daughters were in bed. I wrote on the bus to work and during my lunch hour. I wrote while waiting for my kids to finish soccer practice or swim lessons.

As my daughters got older, it became more feasible for me to spend time away from home and I applied to writing conferences. My first was the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which exposed me to a lot of established writers and people like me wanting to be writers. Over the years, I’ve been able to experience the Napa Valley, VONA, and Bread Loaf conferences. I took Tom Jenks’ four-day intensive workshop. And I’ve attended multiple times the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, a few hours away from me on the Olympic Peninsula. Program director and poet Jordan Hartt puts together a wonderful conference.

I’ve also set aside time for intensive periods of writing at residencies. Hedgebrook, Anderson Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts are among the places that have generously provided time and space, and in some cases, money for me to write.

I read books and articles on craft, but mostly I’ve just continued to be a reader of the things I want to write – novels and stories. Despite my science degree, I’m not a particularly analytical person. I suppose if I had done an MFA program I would’ve developed skills at analyzing fiction. Instead I just read and enjoy and hope that at some level I absorb something of craft from the writers I admire – Antonya Nelson, Francine Prose, Lorrie Moore, Jessica Hagedorn and Ana Castillo, to name a few.

The first book I read by Nelson was Nobody’s Girl. After that I was hooked on her writing. Prose’s Blue Angel and Guided Tours of Hell are among my favorite books, Moore’s stories seldom fail with me, and Dogeaters by Hagedorn and So Far From God by Castillo electrify with their language and humor. In fact, language and humor – sly, unforced, intelligent ─ are what draws me to all these writers.

Finally, getting feedback and really listening, letting go of any need for approval or praise, has been important in my growth as a writer. I’ve been in three writing groups. Each time one dissolved I was lucky enough to find another. I have a fantastic set of readers in the members of my current writing group: Alma Garcia, Allison Green, and Jennifer D. Munro.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Early on I received crucial support that allowed me to believe that I was a writer. I’d been writing for a couple of years daily, diligently, and more or less in isolation when I was invited to be part of Los Norteños, a group of Latino writers that was just beginning to form. We did writing exercises, critiqued each other’s work, and organized readings. It was my first writing community. Then, and I’m not sure how I happened upon them, I found resources for artists. I applied to and was accepted for a residency at Hedgebrook, a place that nurtures the soul and opens the mind and inspires you to write like mad.

That year I also received a generous grant, a powerful vote of faith, from the Seattle Arts Commission, and I was selected to participate in the first Jack Straw Writers Program, which exposes writers’ work through audio and live readings. Support such as this went a long way in counteracting the inevitable bouts of self-doubt.

Unable to pursue an MFA, I cobbled together my own writing education through conferences and workshops. Though I spent only a short time – a few days to a couple of weeks – with each of these teachers, I adored them: Lynn Freed, Bret Lott, Chris Abani, Antonya Nelson, Tom Jenks and, most recently, Paisley Rekdal. Each taught me something about writing and being a writer. A piece of advice I refer to over and over is this Cynthia Ozick quote passed on by Tom Jenks in his class: Play what feeble notes you can and keep practicing.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

When I think about the books I read when I was growing up, these are the authors that come to mind: Louisa May Alcott, Daphne Du Maurier, William Faulkner, Frank Norris, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen – authors worlds removed from a Filipina-Mexican-American growing up in National City, California. The only living (at the time) author that I can recall reading back then was Richard Brautigan, introduced by a student teacher in my high school English class.  Except for Fear of Flying in college, my reading repertoire would not encompass contemporary works for a few more years. It was as if I believed books existed only by long-dead writers.

So in the interim between Erica Jong and Carlos Fuentes (and the other Latin American as well as Latino and Asian and Asian-American authors whose works I would eventually seek out), I committed myself to Virginia Woolf. I was in my twenties, post-college, and missing the debate and discussion about feminism that took place in the classrooms and the commons. I wasn’t sure how one lived feminism in the world. The Voyage Out was the first of Woolf’s novel I read.

Here was a woman so removed from my life in time, place, and class, yet I connected to her words, the finely wrought sentences that paid attention to the small moments that were so ordinary and yet held such heft and meaning. I was drawn to her focus on the female consciousness, the journey from cloistered existence to intellectual freedom and independence from social strictures. I didn’t read all her works, but many of them: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Years, A Room of One’s Own, Between the Acts.

I’ve only reread a few since then. But if the details of those works have not stayed with me the feeling of them has – the way she captured time, its fleetingness. Her life and character are so well-known – her fragility and her strength. The madness. But what matters most was the art, which has inspired other art – like movies. And I will always, always prefer Eileen Atkins’s portrayal of Virginia Woolf to Nicole Kidman’s.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Be patient. Expect rejection.

Accept that you’ll feel envy, frustration, defeat.

Move on. Focus on your work.

Develop your characters.

Develop your character.

No one owes you publication.

When you can’t sell one story, write another.

There’s luck involved ─ good and bad.

Find a community. You’re in this together.

You’re in this alone.

Be patient.

It takes time to arrive at the right word, the story.

The moment of elation.

Happy New Year! I just returned today from an awesome family holiday in Colorado, filled with skating, hiking, skiing, hugging, crying, laughing, eating, and drinking. Here’s a view from the gondola up the mountain at Keystone (which was way out of my league skiing-wise):

It’s resolution time, but I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions. Here’s what I said about them in a post a year ago:

A resolution is something we should do, don’t do, resolve to do in the future, do a few times, and then fail to continue doing. Which makes us feel bad.

I respond much better to commands. So I’ve started choosing one meaningful command that repeats in my mind as if yelled by a drill sergeant at top volume, or, better, as if sung by an awesome singer who repeats it as a refrain I can’t escape.

Last year – 2011 – my command was: Put Yourself Out There  (See full post here.)

And I did! Against my own shy nature, I gave lots of readings for my book, developed my blog, made a new web site, won awards, applied for a competitive Fulbright post in Belfast (survived preliminary round!), submitted a tenure dossier, gave more readings, and just generally Put Myself Out There.

Before that, in summer 2010, my first blogging summer, my command was: Finish What You Started

I’d started all these manuscripts that I hadn’t finished, and this command, repeated over and over, helped me get focused and finish lots of projects.

Which brings us to 2012. My theme for this year is: Live Lovely

This basically means I’m tired of putting myself out there and I want to turn my focus toward living well, slowing down, making art – literary, visual, decorative, culinary – and toward my loved ones.

It’s a weird phrase – Live Lovely – so I’ve been trying it out for a few weeks in my head. And it’s already working! For Christmas I made a few gifts, which combined art-making with loved ones. Here are some vellum votive candles I sent to my mother and grandparents, and I made some for dad and sister too:

[Update: I got the idea from this cool book: PHOTOCRAFT Cool Things to Do with the Pictures You Love]

A friend and fellow writer keeps a terrific blog – I Will Not Diet – where she posted lots of Non-Resolutions by contributors (like me!) HERE.

What did YOU accomplish this year? What’s your command/theme/non-resolution for 2012?

Merry Christmas

December 25, 2011 — 7 Comments

I’m a crier by nature, and here is something that brings me to tears and makes me feel probably exactly how one should feel on Christmas evening: grateful, appreciative, sad, alive, alove (which should be a word).

The New York Times invited readers to submit photos of loved ones they’d lost this year. Here’s a screen shot. Click to go to NYTimes, where you can click on each photo and read a bit about the person who was lost this year:

Click the image to go to NYTimes

Here’s who I lost this year:

Thebes (left)

Obviously our other cat lost his best friend too. Thebes had been with us longer than our daughter, and even today my husband said, “You know what I miss this Christmas? – Thebes.”

Today on the phone, my mom gave me news of my grandfather’s worsened condition. He was taken to the hospital today and they’re not sure he’ll return. Here he is with me and my sister in his arms: