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MFA Book Project

Updated 8/13/05; added current page lengths.

Here is the current (and ever-evolving) outline of the collection of essays I’m writing for the MFA program. The book-length collection, my final project, is due August 2006. I have enough essays planned to fill the minimum word count requirement, but I’m still combing my brain to see if I’m leaving off anything. I’m considering adding a portrait, an essay of place, a critical essay, a political/opinion essay, and a nature essay. I want to write at least one piece fully in the third person. The portrait may be about Darcy, a cat who traveled with me in the military.

I plan my book as a series of essays about the military, ranging from a discussion about who fights our wars to essays about military food. Sometimes–if and when it helps–I will include fragments of memoir from my eight years in the Air Force, first as an enlisted engine mechanic, and later as an aircraft maintenance officer. However, this book is not planned as a memoir, and I’m hoping to extend to forms other than personal narrative.

Any librarians reading this–please also read this as a collective valentine for the librarians and historians at University of San Francisco Gleeson Library, West Point, Air War College, Air Force Academy, and New York Public Library, who have already provided generous assistance. My research requirements for most of these pieces are fairly rigorous, and influence my writing schedule. Thanks also to Mountain View Public Library, which because it offers Link Plus is my summertime lifeline to academic research, and to Palo Alto City Library, which often has books on its shelves I suddenly, desperately need for fact-checking.

Book Chapters

Aesthetic Statement (5/05; 5 pages)

This has nothing to do with the military, but is a pretty good piece that deserves to be submitted as the intro–funny and different.

Journey (First draft 3/05, second 5/05, third 8/4; 15 pages)

This is one of the better pieces I’m working on. The voice is good, the narrative interesting. I wrote the second draft shortly after reading John McPhee’s “In Search of Marvin Gardens,” and it is organized around a walk to and from a recruiter’s office, with history and memoir woven in. I am currently adding historical details. The weave is complicated to do, and it doesn’t work in places, but that’s fine; the process is pleasurable, and it keeps getting better. I’m rather surprised I’ve shoved as much as I have in 15 pages.

Its first paragraph: “In 1983, New York City had one of those eye-blink springs where one day you are holding earmuffs against your frozen skull, teeth chattering as you pray for the M101 bus to arrive, and the next you are digging musty sundresses out of the back of the closet. So I don’t know what I wore that day in April I walked from 114th and Broadway to the Air Force recruiter’s office in Harlem, but I was probably bare-legged, enjoying the sun on my shoulders and the feel on my face of a warm if slightly sooty breeze off the Hudson.”

Who Fights Our Wars (First draft 3/15/05, second draft 5/2005; in hiatus; 9 pages)

Update 7/23/05: This was an essay about obligation to country, framed in a reminescence of a memorial service I attended in Korea in 1990 for a battle during the Korean War. I really hate my voice in this piece: it’s pompous and un-funny. I’m rethinking and rewriting this idea end to end.

The Remains of the Day (Submitted 4/05, 6/05; 11 pages)

Every day on most military bases, everyone stops at the same time to pay honor to the flag as it is put to rest. This essay will weave interviews, historical context, and fictional elements such as description, scene, and story to build a portrait of the retreat ceremony as one of the last few still points in a turning world, and to shed light on its participants.

I’m enjoying the direction this essay is going in. It has humor, history, and personal insight. I expect two or three more serious revisions will get it to where it needs to be for the MFA project.

From about midway through the essay: “When the retreat ceremony begins, wherever you are in relation to the flagpole, your mind begins to relax. The tick-tick-tick of daily life slows to an occasional tock, unleashing your mind from quotidian noise. You think of nothing, and of everything: of the triumphs and frustrations of the day; of the evening ahead, of the days to follow; of loneliness and companionship; of something as simple as an unbuttoned epaulet or a sale on cold cereal at the commissary, or something as vast as faith or love; and you think all these thoughts in a public context at once as intimate and universal as communion, as holy and solemn as the carrying of the Talmud.”

Falling In (First and second drafts 7/05; 23 pages)

After thinking about writing this piece about military language in the third person, I combined it with a memoir of Basic Training and the challenges I had learning a new mother tongue. It’s a lot of fun. Some of my writing in this is very good.

“We were all there to start over one way or the other. We came from everywhere, east, west, north, and south, city and country and suburb and exurb, and we brought our own languages with their own special meanings. We had grown up where soda was pop or Pepsi or cola, or where a big sandwich was a hero or a hoagie or a grinder, or where hello was hi or hey-yah or hullo or howdy or hey. But we didn’t want those languages any more; we ached to be part of this new world, the Air Force.”

Guns: A Love Story (Fragment turned in 3/15/05; first version, 6/05; 24 pages)

Not only a story about guns in the military, and about the joys of guns in general, but a historical essay about women in the military. Coming along fairly well.

“To escape from one life, to gain another: no wonder women have been running off to join the military for thousands of years. Hundreds of women are believed to have mustered into the Union or Confederate armies in the Civil War as real soldiers with fake genders; actual numbers may have ranged in the thousands. … Some, like Mrs. Watkins and Mrs. Epping (2nd Maryland Infantry, U.S.) ran off to be with their husbands, and found they liked the battle as much or even more as their men. Some, such as Marian McKenzie (23rd Kentucky Infantry) and Harriet Merrill (59th New York Infantry) escaped prostitution or abusive boyfriends by sewing uniforms or buttoning jackets up past incriminatingly smooth throats.”

Women in the Military (Cancelled)

Every woman should serve—here’s why. (This ended up folded into Guns: A Love Story.)

Chow (First draft 5/05; 25 pages)

This piece is a big ol’ romp, 26 pages of reminescence about the best and worst of military food. I think it’s baggy but it was received really well, so on the next revision I’ll tighten it up.

Near the beginning, after I graduate from Officer Training School: “…my mother slipped into the restaurant bathroom to ease out of her pretty dress and into her jeans while I stayed in my uniform for the rest of the day just for the hell of it, and we joy-rode through the Texas countryside in that spring of 1985, me sighing with pride and prandial contentment that together shone bright as a Sunday school rainbow. Sometimes I patted my full belly, sometimes I fingered the shiny brass bar on my cap, while my mother pointed out roadside diners as we plummeted southwest toward Austin and then wandered northeast toward the New Mexico border, close to my mother’s home.”

Flags, Patriots, Gung Ho, and Hoo-ah (hiatus)

Update 7/23/05: This was going to be about patriotism and will include a history of the flag. I don’t even remember planning this piece. It may be redundant, since Remains of the Day captures patriotism about as well as is going to happen in this collection.

The Country and the City

The intersection of military and civilian life. I’ll include a discussion of Rantoul Airbase, where I was sent twice for training, which since its closure has been reborn as a multi-use community space. I see this as the final piece in the book. It will require a trip to Rantoul. (Yes, the title does come from Raymond Williams’ book, The Country and the City.)

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