Sophfronia Scott, Author Writing, laughing, and loving

My VCFA Graduation Speech

July 8, 2014 | Writing | Permalink

On Saturday, July 5, I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with my MFA in Writing, fiction and creative nonfiction. My classmates chose me to deliver an address. I wanted very much to do them proud. Here’s the video. Since my talk is all about creativity and connection I hope you can take something useful from it too.

 

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

May 14, 2014 | Writing | Permalink

Picture a group of writers. We’re on a bus. No, we’re not singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” like they do in the movie Almost Famous but we are traveling great distances and having fun. We stop at the virtual internet residence of each writer and there he or she introduces the people they know to the writers on the bus. It’s a wonderful trip because readers get to learn about new authors and their books, and the writers get to connect with new readers. That’s what the My Writing Process Blog Tour is all about. So this week is my stop and I’m happy to introduce you to a few excellent and fierce writers on my radar.

64636_10200161419897015_1327732262_nMy friend Breena Clarke invited me—I will forever crow to the rooftops about her! Breena and I met when we both worked at Time Magazine. While still at Time she was laboring on her first novel that eventually became the Oprah Book Club smash hit, River, Cross My Heart. Her second novel is Stand the Storm and her third will be published in July: Angels Make Their Hope Here. (Isn’t that an awesome title?) I’ve heard Breena read from this book and it is stunning. You can pre-order it now and I enthusiastically suggest you do so.

Breena is also the co-founder, along with her sister, the poet Cheryl Clarke, of the Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers. I had the privilege of teaching at the first festival and the second is coming up in September. Please check it out. You can also help support this excellent event by going here and participating in the fundraising campaign.

Now, to answer the four questions all writers on the blog tour answer:

What am I working on?

I have a few projects underway including the revision of my second novel, The Light Lives Here. I’m also working on a collection of memoir essays and I’ve written a book proposal for a memoir, Eyes in My Fingertips, that I will co-author for a Harvard classmate who has been blind since birth. All this is going on as I finish the work of my final semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m graduating with an MFA in writing, fiction and creative nonfiction, on July 5.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure how I compare with other writers in my genres (historical fiction, essay, memoir), but I know what makes me stand out as a writer. In fact I had this conversation the other night with a friend who had just read an essay of mine. The essay was recently named a finalist in a creative nonfiction contest. (This isn’t public yet–I’ll announce the details when the literary journal publishing my essay does so.) Anyway, my friend’s comments, I think, sum up how I am with all of my writing:

“I love the emotion and risk you put into your writing.”

“This is brilliant. Truly heartfelt, emotional, real, inspirational, and quality.”

“How many writers spill their blood on the page with such trust and gusto knowing their audience needs to hear these words, these messages from their heart?”

If that sounds intense, I suppose it’s because I am an intense writer. I put a serious amount of love into my work with the hope that a lot of love will come out for the reader on the other side. When such love is involved it’s hard for the product to do anything but burn—burn with joy, burn with wonder, burn with gratitude.

Why do I write what I do?

Ian CharlesonIn the movie Chariots of Fire, the character of the Olympic runner Eric Liddell, as portrayed by Ian Charleson, talks about running being his God-given talent. “God made me fast,” he says. “When I run I feel His pleasure.” It’s like that with me and writing. I feel I’ve got to do the thing I’ve been blessed to have this gift to do. And it’s exhilarating when I know I’m writing well because I too feel His pleasure. I know only good can come of the work even if only one other person reads it. I watch Chariots of Fire whenever I need a jolt of inspiration, which I did only yesterday in fact.

How does my writing process work?

In this last semester of my MFA program I’ve been working on my novel under the guidance of another talented writer/teacher, Bret Lott. He asked me about my process—he seemed fascinated by the placeholders and notes to myself I had scattered throughout the manuscript. This is how I explained it all to him:

I’m very much a story-minded novel writer—I want to make sure I have a strong, multi-layered story that can be sustained over 300 or more pages. I think about who my characters are, what they want, and how to create a dramatic arc for them over the course of the novel’s pages. First I think of my big picture story, then I figure out what my climax point is and I aim for that. I try to know my beginning and ending, and I’m fully aware both might change during the process. I will make an initial list of chapters and then a list of what needs to happen in each chapter to move the story forward—yes, I’m an outliner.

Once I know where I’m going I start writing. Some scenes do come more easily than others, but it’s really a matter of my brain being able to focus on one chapter for a good amount of time. And as much as I try to write on the computer it always seems my best stuff is written by hand on a legal pad with a black gel pen.

novelpagesAfter I get a draft written, that’s when I can see the holes, what’s missing in the manuscript. It could be details, description, plot points—items both minor and major. Some can be fixed with a sentence or two. Some will require whole chapters be added. I put notes or placeholders in the pages so I can see what belongs where and to remind myself of what needs to be done. I keep revising in this way until I feel the book is complete. This is what I’m doing now with my novel—I’m on the third draft. Here it is laid out on my dining room table.

So I guess as a writer I’m organized and kind of technical. Perhaps this structure is what gives me the freedom to take risks and be emotional. It’s all part of the whole!

Passing the Baton

I’d love for you to meet Mary Rickert! She too earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s also worked as a kindergarten teacher, coffee shop barista, Disneyland balloon vendor and personnel assistant at Sequoia National Park (How cool is that?). She now lives in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a small city of candy shops and beautiful gardens. She has published numerous short stories and she won a Shirley Jackson Award for her story, “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece.” Her first novel, The Memory Garden, a magical realist story of women’s secrets and friendships was published this month. She’ll publish her blog post at www.maryrickert.com May 21.

Next I take you to the other side of the world—Australia!—to introduce to you the physician and writer Leah Kaminsky. This busy lady, another VCFA graduate, serves as Poetry & Fiction editor at the “Medical Journal of Australia” as well as online editor at “Hunger Mountain.” She’s authored several books and her novel, The Waiting Room, will be published by Random House Books AU in 2016. Her blog post will be up at www.leahkaminsky.com.

That’s all! Hope you’ve enjoyed this leg of the ride.

Cheers,

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Sophfronia

My Next Creativity Playdate

April 17, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

mount1_lgI’ve had a house on my mind. I’m writing something requiring me to conjure the environment of a grand home, a mansion. I feel the need to walk through the expansive rooms of such a place and to roam the blooming, well-tended gardens of a glorious property. When I expressed this thought to my husband he said, “Wasn’t there a writer somewhere around here with a house like that? Somebody with an E name like Eudora.” I felt like I’d been pinched awake. “You mean Edith! Edith Wharton!” I said.

How could I forget? I once clipped an article from O, the Oprah Magazine about the restoration of The Mount, the home Edith Wharton designed for herself in the early 1900s. It’s only 85 miles north of here in Lenox, Massachusetts. I wanted to shout “Road trip!”

edith-wharton-libraryBut when I went to the home’s website I learned it won’t open to the public for the season until May 3. That’s okay, I’ll go then. For now I’m contenting myself with photos of The Mount–look at her gorgeous library!–and reading the book Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount by Richard Guy Wilson.  In light of my recent post about creativity playdates and how I was in search of my next adventure, I wanted to let you know I’ve found it. I’m eager to see the place of which Wharton wrote so lovingly in her autobiography:

“On a slope overlooking the dark waters and densely wooded shores of Laurel Lake we built a spacious and dignified house, to which we gave the name of my great-grandfather’s place, The Mount…There for over ten years I lived and gardened and wrote contentedly, and should doubtless have ended my days there had not a grave change in my husband’s health made the burden of the property too heavy.

But meanwhile The Mount was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing. The Mount was my first real home…its blessed influence still lives in me.”

I’ll happily report back after my visit and let you know how it inspired me.

The Importance of Creativity Playdates

April 2, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

IMG_8686If you’re a writer and a parent (I am) you probably schedule or once scheduled many playdates for your children. When was the last time you booked one for yourself? I’m not talking about hanging out with your friends, (although you could include them in this adventure) I’m talking about a creativity playdate. This is time you set aside for yourself to do something that fills your well of inspiration. A creativity playdate can be simple and close to home—sitting in your favorite chair perusing gorgeous coffee table books. Or it could be a mini field trip that gets you out of the office and into a new environment: a trip to a museum or a public garden which would be ideal now because spring bulbs will soon bloom. It could even be a big trip: My recent Vermont College of Fine Arts study abroad residency in Puerto Rico was basically a huge creativity playdate with my fellow writing students.

Creativity playdates are just as important as the time you schedule for writing. In fact, your writing time can be difficult and fruitless without them. If you find you spend much of your writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, you’re in need of a creativity playdate. Looking for a story idea? Ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street, or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. It’s exciting.

philip-johnson-glass-houseMy other creative activities include watching the television show “Project Runway” because I like seeing a different kind of artist, in this case fashion designers, exercising his or her own brand of creativity. I also color in coloring books (my Harry Potter one is my favorite), visit museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the Bruce Museum  in Greenwich, Connecticut, and tour the homes of famous artists/designers/writers. I love Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, but I recently learned part of the chateau home of the essayist Montaigne is open to the public in Dordogne Village in France. I would love to see his office/library and view the exposed beams in the tower where Montaigne engraved some of his thoughts, including his famous question “’Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?”

greenapplebedOn my latest playdate I explored the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York City. It included art installations as well as design ideas and new home appliances and products. A bed of green apples caught my eye and sparked my imagination, as did a bizarre seating bench covered in tube-like purple velvet cushions entwined again and again. Mysterious and erotic!purplecushions

I encourage you to schedule a creativity playdate at least once a month. If you can’t think of something to do, consider this—you want to excite your five senses. Try to come up with ideas addressing each one. For example:

  • Smell: Explore perfume or incense shops; check out a store where you can sniff barrels of coffee beans, visit a florist.
  • Touch: Go to high-end stores or fabric shops where you can run your hands over rich materials or beautiful furniture. Take a cue from your childhood and visit a petting zoo or an aquarium that features touch tanks of specimens to hold.
  • Sight: Feast your eyes on works of art, or go on hikes to see spectacular views.
  • Sound: Attend concerts, plays, musicals, or sit in a place with lots of people where you can pick up pieces of overheard conversation.
  • Taste: Try a new cuisine by cooking a recipe you’ve never tried before or going to a different restaurant.

Really, you could do anything you want for your creativity playdate as long as you don’t forget to have fun! Let me know what you do or would like to do for your creative adventures. I might be in the market for a new idea this month. Thanks in advance!

VCFA Puerto Rico Residency Day 7

January 9, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

Posts from my Vermont College of Fine Arts winter residency.]

Here’s the thing: I can’t speak with any certainty about how the culture of Puerto Rico has influenced me. It’s just too soon. I probably won’t know until I embark on my next writing project and find myself infusing the work with the saltiness of codfish, the stickiness of thick, red rainforest mud, or the ethereal sadness of an angel’s face from the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. But I have made some important discoveries, and I can discuss those here.

20140109-232457.jpgThis is Raphe. He’s a poet and we will graduate together next summer, but we never met before at our previous residencies in Montpelier. In this photo he’s sleeping near my chair on Luquillo Beach. It may sound odd, but Raphe sleeping in my presence, usually while I’m writing in the common room of our shared villa, is the foundation of our new friendship. We appreciate the peaceful nature of each other’s personalities. I’ll come back to Raphe in a bit.

20140109-234057.jpgOur last full day in Puerto Rico began with a simple generative workshop using as writing prompts the concerns we voiced at the beginning of the residency. We had to choose one and use it as the first line of a poem or prose piece. The one I picked wasn’t my personal concern, but I thought it was interesting: “I’m scared of the rainforest.” Many of us worked on our pieces even as we awaited the time to load the vans for our journey to Luquillo Beach. Yes, this was the glorious day I’ve been waiting for–beach day!
20140109-234752.jpgFive of our group went on a boating/snorkeling excursion, but I was done with adventure activities. I wanted to rent a beach chair and umbrella and sit and stare at the water, which is exactly what I did all day. Well, not quite– I went for a lovely walk on the beach with Richard McCann, Mary Ruefle, and fellow student Maggie Kast.
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I spent some time soaking in the ocean. Saltwater draws out negative energies–yes, I do believe in such things! Then we walked down to the kioskos, little vendor storefronts in a long concrete structure, and found delicious food: oatmeal frappes (topped with whipped cream, 2 Oreo cookies and a vanilla wafer!), salted codfish, and plantains split down the middle and stuffed with spiced ground beef. Mary also found a kioskos that sold candy, but I had no room left in my stomach! 20140109-235926.jpg

Our time on the beach was deeply satisfying because it was more time spent simply talking–about compassion, parenting, developing your own voice in a narrative, and where a person might be meant to live in the world. We could have stayed there well into the evening, but Luquillo Beach closed at 5pm–much too soon for me. The day melted away so fast. 20140110-003850.jpg

When we returned we held our celebratory dinner where we thanked Pam Taylor for being an awesome coordinator, and Carmen who cooked our amazing meals at Casa Cubuy. We also went around the room and responded to two questions: What did the trip teach us that was new? What did the trip remind us of that we already knew, but had lost or forgotten? 20140110-000824.jpg
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Here are my two responses:

My “new” thing I learned was that I could write daily about a current travel experience. I’ve never been able to do that before–in fact I’ve taken blank journals on trips for the purpose of chronicling my adventure only to return home with the book empty. While I may not be able to immediately process Puerto Rico’s influence on me, I suspect what I’ve written this week will help me recognize the seeds this culture has planted within me when they begin to sprout.

And my reminder? That brings me back to Raphe. I remembered I am a peaceful person, and that peace can be a comfort to myself and others. I forget this sometimes because, though I regularly sit in prayer and meditation, I don’t always get to see the effects of my practice. If one exercises, you can see and feel the results in your increased stamina and muscle tone. It’s harder to understand the results of a contemplative practice which, I suppose, is why it’s so easy to let it go for periods of time. But Raphe’s unexpected and delightful friendship is a really nice affirmation and it helps me say this: I’ll keep praying and meditating. I’ll keep seeking. I will appreciate this aspect of myself more and not take it for granted as I return to my home and family tomorrow. Thank you, Raphe.

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And thank you to our faculty, Richard McCann and Mary Ruefle. They were the best teachers, even more than I could have hoped for on this journey.

Thanks too to the rest of my fellow travelers/students: Daniel McGinn, Josephine Hughes, Partridge Boswell, Lillian Kwok, Brittany Rathbone, Shanalee Smith, Maggie Kast, Carolyn Walker, and Judith Ford.

Thank you for reading this, and journeying with me on this marvelous adventure. Take care and be well,

Sophfronia
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