Posts in writing
Life Backwards

I love school supplies, journals, and notebooks. So many journals of my girlhood start with a commitment to write and record my life but end prematurely after a few weeks, if I'm lucky. This is a consistent pattern for calendars, planners, and other life projects. Each time I commit to a journal or project, of course, I think, "yeah, this will be good." I have hosts of plans, ideas and then something happens where I lose focus or interest or get wrapped up in something else. My life is littered in the incomplete. 

Soren Kierkegaard writes,

"It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards." 

One of the texts I assigned this Spring semester, a graphic novel by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba titled Daytripper  engages directly with this idea of understanding life backwards as it is a non-chronological glimpse into one man's life and death(s). As part of our class discussion, we talked about the idea that it's difficult to understand (deeply), life as you live it. Time to reflect, to look back is required. My reaction to Daytripper and its themes was significantly different from that of my students. I think it was probably different than it would have been a few years ago, as well. The idea of understanding backwards, of seeing what has come before, grappling with meaning felt like a very true process. I kept thinking about the stories I tell, the way I go over a moment trying to see it and make sense of it, the way I anchor it to myself or dismiss it. I thought about blogging, about the reasons I started the practice and why I continued. I realized that I've been trying to do what Kierkegaard writes about: understand the moments of my life. 

It's been over a year since I wrote in this space. I was in a different literal and figurative place then. To say things have changed would be an understatement. We moved in July of 2016 and much of my summer was focused on moving and getting settled. There didn't seem to be time, space, or energy to write the way I wanted to. I wouldn't say I was burned out exactly, but rather my attention was focused elsewhere--in the living of life forward. Besides, I wasn't sure what I would do with the blog (I wrote about this last April), a space, technically a variety of spaces where I've been writing for over a decade. There was a part of me that knew I did not want to give it up completely, but I also knew that I was busy and not always creating time necessary to writing the way I like--through multiple drafts, in response to current thoughts or prompts. Many forces converged, causing me to leave my previous blog host and I needed a new space. Instead of porting the old blog over completely, I wanted to make something new that (like life) carries things over from past iterations. I'm still working on broken links and images as well as creating a schedule of posts to be more consistently present here. I'm working on a project that will require space to work out ideas and pieces of essays and I hope that will push me to share more here. 

Summer is a good time for fresh starts and goals, for making plans and for secret road trips, spontaneous afternoons, good books, great music. For me, summer is a time for refueling, catching up on TV shows and movies, friends' lives and everything else that takes a back seat during the academic year. As a kid, summer used to be a time of less rules and in many ways, I've taken that spirit into my adulthood. Finally, some breathing room, thinking space, time to write and play. I'll do what I can to make sense of it all, here: forward and backwards.  

 

 

#reverb14: on writing

On writing: Chances are, if you’re participating in #reverb it’s because you like writing. Or at least want to like writing. Writing is like a muscle. Use it or lose it. What do you do every day to hone your craft? Or, what would you like to do each day to contribute to your writing?

I'm not a very disciplined writer. I don't write at the same time every day or set certain hours aside. When I have a deadline, I do better about writing more steadily but I still don't designate certain hours daily. As a creative writing Master's student, I never created that structure for myself because so much of my life was writing. I was writing in classes, during study hours, in writing groups, at bars and in cafes, at parties, at dinner with friends. Writing was constant, so much so I did not think about it. It was like breathing. But now, the demands on my time are so different that I write when I can.

I try to write every day though it's not always possible.Of course, blogging helps my writing practice when I make time for it.  I have a lot of unfinished drafts in folders, pieces I've started and plan to come back to. I will work on them for a while, and sometimes they turn into something else: a blog post, a writing exercise, an introduction, a full-blown story. Other times, they remain drafts. When I'm teaching, I write the in-class exercises, and small pieces of writing along with my students. There have been a few of those pieces that I later blog, or work on further. I love when that happens. M and I like answering the prompts from 642 Things to Write About Journal just for fun. And I also have a book called Write Brain: 366 exercises to Liberate Your Writingwhich I will use in classes and sometimes if I'm stuck.

Whenever I'm working on something, I re-read the draft each time. Usually I read it through once without making any changes. If that inspires me, I will begin drafting right away. Then I go back and read and edit as I read wherever I notice something I want to revise. This is my process no matter what genre I'm writing and no matter how long or short the piece is.

Whether I'm writing something academic or personal, I like to write to music and I need coffee. While working on my dissertation, I had a Pandora station called Writing Radio and now when I use Spotify, I will jump around my various playlists, which works pretty well. There's something about setting the mood for writing that I need. I like to have books around me, notes and notebooks spread out with my pens littering the table. I've been known to take up a whole table with my stuff. I wrote my dissertation in cafes and restaurants, places that were noisy, busy, full of people and conversations and food. I like having stuff around me; I focus better that way. It's tough for me to work at home, even in my office. Bottom line: I don't like it too quiet.

How to Cook a Story

My last assignment for my composition students includes a reflective piece where they talk about themselves as a writer and explore their writing process. They often ask me what I would write if I were completing an assignment and I try to write many of the assignments I ask of them. Though this would not meet the requirements of what I assigned, once I started writing it, I couldn't stop. One student after class shyly asked, "Have you thought about writing a book?" 

"Many times," I responded, "many times." 

My Writing Life, or How to Cook a Story

The beginning of my life as a writer is rooted in my life as a reader. Both of my parents are voracious readers and like them, I consumed texts. Instead of stuffed animals or dolls, I slept with novels and books of folklore littering my bed. I was often in trouble for reading past my bedtime, with a flashlight under my covers. Once, I burned a hole in my pillowcase after taking the top off my Strawberry Shortcake nightlight and letting the naked bulb fall onto my sheets. I read everything from Nancy Drew mysteries to Treasure Island.

I wielded my library card without mercy, moving from The Boxcar Children  to The Chronicles of Narnia and later Through the Looking Glass and Anne of Green Gables. I pulled books from my father’s study much too young and read Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby at 12. In college when I studied Fitzgerald in a class, I couldn’t believe I’d even grasped half of the plot of those novels. I certainly missed the nuances. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. I would read my father’s sports magazines, my mother’s Reader’s Digest. I sped through my father’s boyhood bookshelf from White Fang, and To Kill A Mockingbird to Robert E. Lee biographies. I searched his books for notes, clues, some way to decipher him, to draw my father closer.

Love of language, of stories and characters, and time tethers my father to me. I grew up in awe of him, loved listening to the cadence of his voice as he practiced sermons and sang along to records he played in his study. I watched his hands in the dirt, coaxing lilies and aloe plants, ferns and ficus to bloom. His attention to plants was often like his attention to my brother and I, as children. The spectrum from leaving us alone to play and explore to intensely interested in our movements and thoughts was just as mysterious and unpredictable as the anxiety that plagued my mother throughout our childhood. If I wanted my father’s attention and I often craved it desperately, I only had to mention books, or ask for a suggestion of what to read. Sometimes I asked questions about characters or why an author would frame a plot in a particular way. My father never tired of talking about stories, or sports, which is probably why for much of my adolescence I wanted to be a sports writer. But I loved poetry more, and once I devoted serious study to it, I fell in love with creative non-fiction and the personal essay. Writers like Joan Didion and Philip Lopate, David Sedaris and Annie Dillard expressed the truth in the same way the poets I loved did, openly, but without apology.

In college, my father would send me letters in his messy scrawl with quotes from books, poems, or lists of authors I should read. He would include excerpts from The New Yorker with notes in the margins. He sometimes asked about my own work, and would proudly display awards, clippings and posters of my readings. He even attended a few but slipped out before I could say anything to him. My writing friends adored him, and even those who had not been to church in years, would attend services to hear him preach. At his core, my father is a storyteller, like the women who raised him.

The summers I spent with my extended family, my grandparents and my great-grandmothers steeped me in stories. I spent hours doing kitchen chores to hear the women in my family reminisce, gossip and trade stories. Granny Jones who was the most superstitious told the best ghost stories. On walks, she would point out houses, hotels, locations of violent deaths or ghost sightings. She claimed the field behind my other Granny’s house was haunted, and had been since a neighbor accidentally shot a friend of his while they were hunting. She was never at a loss for a story. The one place Granny was always quiet, however, was the cemetery. She felt we owed the dead our respect and as I shifted uncomfortably in my Keds, Granny would lay flowers on graves and whisper prayers, tracing loved ones’ names with her fingertips. I was fascinated by her, my paternal great-grandmother who never re-married after her husband died young, a woman who sewed clothes for me, and let me play in the scraps of materials, who had been a welder, a bookkeeper and shoe salesperson before she pursued nursing late in her life. She never admonished me for daydreaming, or reading trashy romance novels off her shelves. She listened intently to me and watched every play I corralled the neighborhood kids into. She told stories about my father as a boy, about my grandmother as a teenager, but rarely about her own life. I understand now that she used stories to create connection and distance simultaneously. My father does the same thing, and to some extent, so do I. The tension between what you express and what you hide, as a writer of non-fiction is always present and in flux.

Whenever I feel stuck writing, whether I am writing fiction, non-fiction, research, or even a blog post, I think about the way my Granny cooked. Granny was stubborn and never used recipes. To watch her prepare food was a lesson in revising on the fly. She knew what she could substitute, and exactly how much of an ingredient she needed. She converted measurements in her head and hummed church hymns or Sam Cooke, when she thought no one was listening. As she taught me to make dumplings or gumbo, she would sigh as I scribbled notes frantically, knowing I would never remember all of the measurements or the order of the steps, knowing still, that she would not always be around to remind me.

I can close my eyes, breathe deeply and see her moving around the kitchen. Her hands are graceful, soft in her old age, "like a suit that doesn't quite fit" she'd say when she washed her hands in the sink, and then immediately massage them with lavender lotion. She told me once that her body knew what to do in front of a stove, and that’s why she never measured anything, or set a timer. “It’s all about the feeling,” she said. “If you’re really aware, you’ll know when it’s done.” But I’m not as disciplined as my Granny. I don’t write enough, or spend time experimenting with my own ingredients for a story. I don’t structure writing into my day. I wonder how many ideas I am not committing to paper, how often inspiration strikes while I am searching my bag for a pen. As a Master’s student, I wrote everywhere, bars, restaurants, my car. I wrote in journals and on bar tabs, napkins, my hand. I was a raw nerve; everything had the potential to be a story and I lived my life as though it were one.

When I started my Ph.D. program a new kind of reading and writing life began. And for five years I worked on someone else’s timetable, prioritizing my work based on deadlines and syllabus requirements. I tried to funnel my creativity into my academic work, which fueled me for a while. In the meantime I abandoned novels and short stories; half-written poems fill a hard drive, collecting digital dust. I remember lines like scenes from a dream that wakes you, groggy and disoriented. Sometimes, they turn into something else, but mostly they rest quietly, a cemetery full of ghosts.

And yet, I am not haunted by the page. I write poems, stories, pieces of my life, blog posts when I can. I still consider myself a writer. I write something everyday, but it’s not always good and it’s not always complete. I’m not sure my “process” has changed much. I listen to music when I write, over my stereo if I'm at home or through headphones when I'm not. I create playlists like "Songs to break your heart" or "Writing Radio," and "Twisting the Knife." Songwriters like Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell, Bon Iver and bands like Dishwalla, Drive By Truckers, Band of Horses, and Kings of Leon fill my ears. I write at cafes, coffeeshops and restaurants. Last month I wrote a poem on my phone while waiting in the Starbucks drive-thru, and then edited it at home. But those moments don’t happen often. I almost always write in Google docs, rarely by hand, and typically after at least 2 cups of coffee.

When I write, the struggle for the right word, or the best way to approach a particular story or research topic often feels just out of reach. Most of the time, I begin by just getting something on the page. If I am working on a researched article, I will take my research notes which I usually type up in a Google document and cut and paste some of the main ideas or questions I am working through; other times, I will type quotes that I want to use or that inspired my thinking on a particular topic. If I’m writing a conference presentation, I often have the abstract I proposed in a different window so that I can refer back to the concepts and questions I originally wanted to explore. I work best surrounded by the work that inspires me. This usually means I have books laid out around me but more often than not lately, I also have multiple browser windows open to articles or blog posts and other online content. Being surrounded by words, by research, by other work means I am never really stuck. I can read something which sparks an idea or distract myself on Facebook for a few minutes. I can respond to an email or chat with one of my friends. All of those distractions become part of the process. It helps that I revise often, sometimes in my head, mentally crossing out elements of a story, deleting paragraphs, details before they are even on the page. When I revise, I begin at the beginning, re-reading what I have written, but not necessarily all the way through. As I read, I edit. I expand  a story, adding details or going more in depth than before. I delete details, whole chunks of paragraphs that no longer seem to work. I often save these in other documents where they will become pieces of something else. I also edit at the sentence level, adding commas or semicolons as details grow, or exchanging one word for another.

As I draft,  I write quickly, throwing everything onto the page so that I can shape it later. I liken the process to sculpting and so when I cut or move or take a particular turn, I often begin to see something I was not expecting emerge. For example, very little in this essay, with the exception of the first paragraph was what I thought I would write about when I began. I certainly did not expect to write about my father, though in retrospect I probably should have. If I am going to talk about writing, about stories and storytelling, I’m going to talk about my father. He remains the looming influence of my reading and writing habits.

 

I am also influenced by other storytellers in my life. Some are published; most are not. Anne Sexton is correct, I think, when she says “the art chooses you.” For me that art is creative non-fiction, memoir, telling stories about myself. Nikki Giovanni said about poetry, “it may not be good, but at least it is mine.” The life I write about is only a fragment of me, one that I try to be honest about. And it may not be good; it may not be expected. You may not agree with how I live or write. That is okay, because my stories, the fragments, ghosts, the unwritten, the works-in-progress, the things I censor, the things I let slip, they’re all part of the recipe of story. I’m convinced that one day, I will move with words the way my Granny did in the kitchen. I will chop syntax and simmer metaphors. I will stir at just the right intervals, so the diction doesn’t stick. I dig in my hands, knead the words with just enough pressure and then let it rest. I will not keep opening the oven door, and letting in the cold air from outside. I will know the steps by heart and meter and rhyme, and no one will have to tell me when it’s ready. I’ll already know.  

#reverb 13: running & writing accomplishments

Victory Laps: What was your biggest accomplishment of 2013?

I know I have written about running quite a bit already this reverb, but when I look back over this year running remains a significant part of my goals, accomplishments and surprises. Before I started running, I couldn't imagine calling myself a runner and many times while training for the 5K I kept insisting that I wasn't. When I wrote a few posts ago about bravery, part of what I was trying to get at was the depth of the accomplishment I feel crossing the finish line. It happens each time I finish a run, no matter how exhausted my body is. When I think about where I started, being unable to run a mile and where I'm ending this year: running multiple 5Ks, and planning for a half-marathon, (hopefully) I feel good about what I have been able to do.  I've learned a great deal and hope to be more disciplined with running, add miles, increase speed, and create a more consistent habit for myself. The good thing about the new year is that our running club will start training specifically for the Red Brick 5K and that will give me a chance to re-commit.

In terms of professional accomplishment, I'm always happy when I can watch my students' writing grow through the course of a semester. I've written several recommendations for students transferring, seeking scholarships, and travel-abroad opportunities and consider that a privilege. I'm also proud that the article/chapter I co-wrote on Supernatural was published (ahead of schedule) and my name and words are in print in Supernatural and Philosophy: Metaphysics & Monsters for Idjits