My MFA Reading List (it's not boring, I swear!)

Okay, maybe it's a little boring, but enough of you have expressed interest in what I read during my MFA program in creative writing at Goddard College for me to actually give you a list! As you'll see, the books ran the gamut, from classics to contemporary, fiction to nonfiction, critical to popular. About half of these were recommended by professors and peers early in my program, while I selected the other half as I grew more certain about what I was writing and what I needed to strengthen that (i.e. books about home, belonging, etc.).

My curriculum also required that I present an annotated bibliography, writing descriptions of the books that had the greatest impact on me and why. You'll find those in bold below, and you'll find the annotations themselves underneath this looooong list. (Who doesn't like a colorful graphic to start their Monday morning?)

Here are just some of the books I most enjoyed and that deeply impacted my own writing and exploration. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've read them (or any on the above list), or if you read them in the future!

Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Jayber Crow tells his life’s story: losing his parents as a child, his many years as the barber in the small town of Port William, Kentucky, his feelings for the always-married Mattie, and his ever-shifting strands of connection to home and place. As I have explored my own thoughts and feelings about what home means and where it is, Berry’s reflective and spiritual take on place and belonging has been a guide for me.  

de Waal, Edmund. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. de Waal, an internationally renowned potter, goes in search of his ancestors through a precious family heirloom, a collection of Japanese netsuke figurines. As he traces how the netsuke came to be in his family and the story of each generation that passed them down, he uncovers the painful story of his relatives’ escape from the Nazi Occupation in Vienna. de Waal writes the memoir as an explorer as naïve as his readers; he is learning as he goes, and shares his gathered information along the way. I too feel like I have been an explorer rather than a recollector in this writing journey, processing events through writing since they have happened so recently. 

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. David Copperfield tells his life’s story chronologically, from beginning to the present day, all the while knowing where he has ended up, and with whom – yet never giving anything away to the reader. As someone writing a coming of age story – in a certain chunk of time, but still – I found this one of the most important books that I read during G1. Dickens’ attention to detail while being able to move the plot forward, bringing characters in and out of the narrative, and maintaining a solid voice for his protagonist, all provided takeaways for me as I began my memoir.   

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Ring of Endless Light: The Austin Family Chronicles, Book 4. L’Engle writes about the Austin family, with teenage Vicky narrating about the summer they spend on the coast with their grandfather who is suffering from a terminal illness. I was drawn to this book for multiple reasons: first, because it is what I’ve begun to think of as a “quiet book,” because it deals with ordinary life in a powerful way. My book is a quiet book, and I appreciate being surrounded by others suck as L’Engle’s. Vicky’s organic narration is fluid and believable, and she isn’t afraid to ask questions. I also appreciated how the book addresses mysteries of faith and spirituality, but not in a hackneyed way.

hooks, bell. Belonging: A Culture of Place. Recommended to me by a Goddard classmate, hooks’ book of essays about home and place deeply resonated with me on some levels – she writes about her decision to return to her home state after many years away, and the positive and negative repercussions of this active choice. But it also allowed me to look through the lens of home and place through the eyes of an African American woman whose home state has a history of deep racism, like the rest of the American South. I too am from the South, but as a white woman, examining the questions of belonging through hooks’ eyes widened my view.

Julavits, Heidi. The Folded Clock: A Diary. Julavits keeps a diary – structured non-chronologically – for two years in her mid-forties, taking ordinary life events and digging into them so deeply that she comes out on the other side of every entry with a commentary on her internal self or an element of society. Julavits’ voice is wonderfully self-deprecating and unapologetic in every topic she discusses, and I was especially drawn to the way she is able to describe the anxieties and worries that she feels about certain things in her life. As someone who often overthinks the smallest things, and whose overthinking is an active part of my memoir, reading Julavits was a great inspiration.  

Manguso, Sarah. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. Sarah Manguso writes about her obsession with keeping a diary for the first half of her life, and how having her first child changes her need to record everything that happens. As with Julavits, I identified so deeply with Manguso’s intense desire to record and her idea that if it isn’t recorded, it didn’t happen. I also was drawn to her non-ending, cutting off the memoir in the middle of a sentence. Since my memoir covers a period of time that is, in a sense, ongoing, reading this book made me examine how I should end something that hasn’t ended off the page.

McCarthy, Mary. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Mary McCarthy’s memoir about her orphan childhood and Catholic school days fascinated me for one primary reason: after every chapter, with all its colorful detail, description and certainty, comes an “interchapter,” where McCarthy tells the reader what she made up and what she didn’t. She seems to have no qualms about fictionalizing parts of her past – typically when she doesn’t remember specifics – and then almost delights in explaining the true and false. It’s a way of writing memoir (and written before memoirs became popular) that I hadn’t considered before.  

Robinson, Marilyne. Gilead. Robinson’s classic is told through the eyes, ears, and words of Rev. John Ames, an old man writing a letter to his young son. This was another “quiet book” that I found powerful because Ames is such an engaging, conflicted narrator, who describes his world, both internal and external, in such vivid detail. I got to hear Robinson speak during the week that I read Gilead, and listening to her offer some of her opinions and values in person doubled the strength of the book.  

Shadid, Anthony. House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid returns to his family’s home country of Lebanon to rebuild his ancestors’ house during years of constant war. I loved Shadid’s ability to describe place, to anchor readers in Lebanon both culturally and, more intimately, in the house and history that he is attempting to bring new life. I also took notice of what was missing: his vague references to his divorce and his young daughter back in the States, and the epilogue by his never-mentioned second wife after Shadid’s untimely death. There was so much going on behind the scenes that he didn’t talk about.  

Silber, Joan. Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories. Silber’s “ring of stories” – stories that are all somehow connected in one way or another – made me think a lot about how to cover long stretches of time in a short story. In particular, the title story “Ideas of Heaven,” which I used in my long critical paper, covers more than fifteen years in just under 90 pages. It was fascinating to examine how Silber used language to stretch and condense time so fluidly so that the readers feel like they’ve traveled a long, short journey all at once.

Thomas, Abigail. Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life. Also recommended by a Goddard classmate, Abigail Thomas’s memoir of grief over the passing of an ex-husband is structured in vignettes, chapters that are only a couple of pages at the most. What I took from Thomas’s crisp, rich language was the way that she showed the emotion of grief rather than told about it. She described experiences, small and momentous, that brought home the sense of loss she was feeling, rather than simply stating it. Since I am dealing with grief in my own memoir, I took a lot from this book.

Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped: A Memoir. I was intrigued with this book as soon as Reiko Rizzuto shared an excerpt in a workshop about structure during my G3 residency. Jesmyn Ward recounts the deaths of five young African American men in her hometown in Mississippi, including her brother Joshua. But it is the way she approaches these deaths and stories – going backwards chronologically, using her imagination to fill in the gaps of what she does not know – that really struck me, and stuck with me as I grappled with how to write about what I do not fully understand.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. Wharton tells the story of Newland Archer, a young man at the turn of the 20th century who is torn between marrying the proper woman or the woman he is actually in love with, her foreign cousin. Archer does his duty, and spends the rest of his life paying for his appropriate choice. I was really taken with how fluidly and subtly Wharton made society a character in the novel, driving Archer’s decision and how he handles his feelings. I feel like society is, in some ways, a character in my memoir, as I wrestle with the idea that returning home as an adult is somehow a failure.  

Cheers to the joys of literature! Happy Monday.

Blogging hiatus, over and OUT.

Claire's 2015: This basically sums it up.

Claire's 2015: This basically sums it up.

Y'all. This is embarrassing. My last post was April 3, 2015.

In case you weren't aware, it's February 2016. Ack ack ick. 14-year-old blogging Claire (who blogged an average of five times a day) would be very disappointed in 28-year-old not-blogging Claire.

But, 14-year-old self (and everyone else), can we back up so I can tell you what's been going on and give you an idea of just WHY I haven't blogged for ten whole months?


Proof! It happened!

Proof! It happened!

First and foremost, #MFAlife. #amwriting. (14-year-old self would not understand why I'm attaching the number sign to words. Sometimes 28-year-old self does not understand either. Le sigh.) In other words, 2002 Claire, future you got a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. And the last year of this program took up a LOT of time. Like, a lot. Time that I didn't really have to begin with and so would squeeze hurried and harried into Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes late weeknights while Sean slept. Reading and underlining books shakily on the bus to and from work, closing my eyes to delve and dive into the last 18 months of my life so that I could emerge with something... and I did! I wrote a book, a manuscript draft. It exists, I printed it out (multiple times), I read from it in front of a bunch of people (including the people I was writing about), I gave a graduation speech and got a new diploma and an alumni pin. But all of that just wound down in the last month, and so I'm still adjusting to having writing time on my hands that doesn't have to do with deadlines.

Actually, I spent plenty of time away from the laptop. With all the friends, weddings, reunions, birthdays, my college classmate winning NBA MVP, and a certain husband, 2015 was pretty epic.

Actually, I spent plenty of time away from the laptop. With all the friends, weddings, reunions, birthdays, my college classmate winning NBA MVP, and a certain husband, 2015 was pretty epic.

I've been teaching, too, which began as a requirement for my degree and has become a fun, challenging and rewarding addition to my life. I feel constantly amazed by all I've actually learned/read/experienced in the past 5-10 years to be able to do this, and very glad that the folks who come to my classes seem to leave feeling inspired - and then return the next week! Some parts still feel quite experimental, but I'm excited to continue on the journey and see where it leads.

So those are my two biggest excuses, middle school Claire, for having gone my longest stint ever without blogging since the eighth grade. And then of course there's everything in between - the most important people, the full-time job, the early bedtimes and occasional (...) TV binges. For the first time in a long time, I've lived life without writing about it simultaneously. Even on paper, the everyday has gone unchecked. (I read Sarah Manguso's Ongoingness: The End of a Diary with rapt fascination, hearing myself and not-myself on every page.)

But then the other morning - not surprisingly, a day or two after my writing group and I had done ten minutes of free writing on a prompt - I switched my electric tea kettle to "on," and something clicked on within me. "I'll just write until the water boils," I thought, grabbing the most recent blank journal I'd tried unsuccessfully to jump start.

And there it went. The words, again.

It was lovely to write with a deadline - until the water boils! - about nothing and everything. I tried not to monitor what appeared messily on the page, and much of it was mundane, but it felt so good to write and not try and make it deep and sweeping. I liked seeing my handwriting on the page again, even when my hand started to ache from lack of practice.

I got a couple of pages down and then the kettle clicked and I closed the book, got up, filled my mug with English Breakfast and skim milk, poured a bowl of dry Honey Nut Cheerios, sliced up a pear and spread my toast with peanut butter. Turned on NPR.

The day was beginning, but not before I had begun myself. And while I have enjoyed living life without writing about it, finding that to be a mixture of outwardly relaxed and inwardly tense (or inwardly relaxed and outwardly tense?), I am excited to have the time to return. No, to MAKE the time to return. 

Speaking of Sarah Manguso - I ran into her in The New York Times this week, and was struck so soundly by this thought:

The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

So I'm back. Choosing life, and writing. Writing, and life. For myself and for you, whoever you may be. And I hope you'll come along for the ride, wherever it goes next.

Revisiting 2014: My end-of-year personal summit.

Thanks to Rosie Molinary for inspiring this exercise!

1. Describe yourself at the beginning of 2014.

At the start of 2014, I was physically and mentally tired. My beloved grandfather had just died, we were driving back and forth between states and homes during the holidays, and on the first day of the year, I flew to a polar vortexing Vermont for a week of intensive workshops to begin my grad school program. It was the year of our wedding - though still nine months out - and plans and decisions about the big day were always underlying. I liked my job well enough, and loved the folks I worked with, but after nearly three years, it had begun to feel rote and not challenging.

2. What are five words that describe your 2014?

Transition. Struggle. Fulfilling. Joyful. Weary.

3. Recall 2014. What are three images that pop into your head?

Leaving my house in Charlotte for the last time.

Walking down the aisle at our wedding.

Our first Christmas tree in our cozy little home.

4. How do those images make you feel in retrospect?

Leaving Charlotte feels very far away - six months ago this week - and yet not at all. I/We are still hashing out what it means to be not there. The transition has been daily, difficult, and inwardly chaotic. And yet I find myself grateful and filled to be so near our families here in Georgia. Looking back, without that element of family gatherings and closeness, life in NC seems like it was a little emptier. 

Walking down the aisle makes me rejoice that our wedding ended up just as it should have, surrounded by friends and family and the touches that made it us. I'm glad that I remember it so clearly. I'm also glad that the planning, waiting, and preparation are all over and done!

I'm looking at our Christmas tree right now because we haven't had the heart to take it down yet. It fills me with gratitude that after weeks of searching on Craigslist, driving down streets, and everything in between to no avail, a home became available to us the week Sean moved to Atlanta. I'm thankful that it has every element that we looked for, and landlords who are kind and attentive. No matter the ongoing stresses of this transition, it is a joy to have a house that feels like home.

5. What did you do this year that you had never done before?

Went to graduate school. Left a job. Got married.

6. What dates/experiences from this year will remain etched in your memory and why? (Maybe I'm being lazy, but I feel like the "why" is answered in that I remember and note them!)

Sitting in my car and hearing a job offer over the phone, feeling equally elated and terrified.

My going away party at my job in Charlotte, where I bawled.

My first day at my new job, when my heart was in my throat and my stomach felt liquid.

The in-between surreality of going back and forth between familiar places (but we can only inhabit one at a time! Argh!) while we did long-distance for two months.

Putting together our wedding invitations in the calm and quiet of the office where we met.

Fun and humbling wedding shower celebrations.

Moving into our rental house.

Our full, clear-as-day wedding weekend, surrounded by loved ones from near and far.

Exploring the streets and squares of Savannah.

Sitting outside in our backyard struggling to finish my school work.

Moving moments from all three memorial services for Sean's grandparents.

Standing in the back of my home church on Christmas Eve, hearing "Amen" resound around me in a different and more meaningful way than it ever had. (I'll be writing more about this soon.)

Sharing our first Christmas together.

This list would get way longer if I listed the countless small moments that have brought such joy.

7. What was your biggest challenge?

Leaving Charlotte, a place that we think of as home, for Atlanta, where we grew up but haven't lived in quite awhile. I also started a new job, finished planning our wedding, and successfully completed a semester of grad school all at once.

8. What was your biggest triumph?

I can't describe quite how good it felt to read my grad school advisor's final evaluation of my semester, especially since he knew all that had been going on in my personal life. Finishing the term on such a good note - hell, finishing at all - felt like a massive accomplishment.

9. What are three to five great things you did in 2014?

Celebrated amazing lives, including three of Sean's grandparents, as well as inspirational church members - probably the record number of funerals I've attended in one year, but each felt moving and meaningful.

Had a dance party blast at Chris + Michele's wedding with some of my favorite people.

Gathered my best girlfriends together for brunch on the day of my wedding.

Went to Savannah for a fun, restful, adventurous, sunshine-y, delicious food honeymoon.

Watched childhood home movies with my family on New Year's Eve, smiling, sighing and cackling with laughter.

10. What are some important things you stopped doing?

Twitter. I'm almost completely off, and it's so refreshing.

Driving 30 miles to see Sean. Hooray for one house!

Ongoing process, but attempting to slow my brain-crippling anxiety.

Another ongoing process: I feel like I've stopped (or started to stop?) worrying about putting on a good face when things are challenging or messy in life. I feel surrounded and supported by people who will take me as I am and who also know what it's like to live into the questions.

11. What are some important things you started doing?

Going to a women's group at church one night a week.

Riding the bus to work - using less gas and walking more.

Jessica Smith workouts.

Thinking about what home means for me and others.

Figuring out my identity as an adult and wife within the community where I grew up.

12. Looking back, what was this year’s gift to you?

2014 showed me that I (and Sean and I) can take a lot and get through a lot. Leaving a place we love, a new job, the job hunt, an intensive school semester, a wedding, beginning a marriage, the passing of three grandparents... It reminded me of the messy, deep love and support we have on all sides of us and within us. It also brought us to a new/old home that we're getting to know and grow into. It's given us more time with our families and a vibrant church community that I love experiencing anew and sharing with my husband. The start of a new year doesn't end the time of transition, and doesn't make me stop wondering about home... but it does help me to take a deep breath, give us both a major pat on the back, and say thanks.

13. Describe yourself now.

At the start of 2015, I feel the weariness and heft of all that happened over the last twelve months (which have gone in a snap, by the way). But at the same time, I feel refreshed and forward-looking. I'm heading back to Vermont (hopefully not as polar vortexing) to begin my third graduate school semester. I feel like I have a decent handle on where I'm going with my writing - but I know I'll have to buckle down and get words on the page, rather than ideas floating around in my head. I'll be teaching a memoir-writing class this winter/spring, and I'm nervous and excited about that opportunity. I am in a job that challenges me, in a high-energy higher ed environment whose mission I believe in, working alongside dynamic co-workers and friends. It's wonderful to be in the same town as my parents, my grandmother, my brother and his girlfriend, my in-laws, my sister-in-law and her fiance - all great folks who get along well with each other. Most of all, I am so thankful for Sean and all that he is. Even in the midst of transition, I feel settled and joyous with him. Building a home and a life together, and sharing that on good days and bad, was the best and most rewarding part of 2014 and beyond.

Cheers to 2015! (And hopefully a more frequent blogging schedule...)