lessons to be (re)learned
- One afternoon during freshman English class (high school variety) my teacher passed out a bagful of oranges. He told us we needed to learn to see things. We fingered the pebbled texture of the skin, examined the wrinkling around the stem end, pulled away the layers of peel and sticky white membrane, split apart a segment and poked with a pen tip at the packets of juice lined up orderly as rows of corn.
- I can still see the blackboard from Writing Workshop (sophomore year now): my teacher's spidery handwriting Show don't tell and below Specific details. The way I remember it, that just about summed up her advice. She left us alone to write most of that year, every once in a while calling someone to the round conference table and slipping an issue of the New Yorker from her pile, saying, "Here, read this," like a prescription tailored especially for that person.
- In the one-semester Form and Theory of Poetry class required of us fiction writers in graduate school, the teacher made us actually write poetry: heroic couplets, open couplets, blank verse, ballads, sonnets, terza rima, even ottava rima. I bought myself a rhyming dictionary and locked myself in my study for hours on end, discovering the generative power of form (as this assignment reminds me yet again).
- I did not particularly enjoy the fiction workshops in graduate school (a testosterone-laden atmosphere where writing a short story was often compared to playing a football game), but from the poet-friends who lounged around our livingroom after end-of-the-month potluck dinners and later crowded onto the picnic tables in the neighborhood bar's beer garden I learned the value of reader-pressure, the sense that there is a sympathetic audience waiting to read what I have written. (And for me this is one of the many appeals of blogging.)
- Walking around the block, I first notice the things I can’t see when I drive by, trying to pick the details that best convey the tone of each household: the silk flags changed for every holiday, the rake lines in gravel driveway, gazing globes nestled among hollyhocks and delphinium. I remember walking these routes when my oldest daughter was a baby, picking fistfuls of roadside wildflowers (blue toadflax, mullein, chicory, bittersweet nightshade), how later at home, when I was looking through the guidebooks, trying to name something made me look at it more closely. As I walk further, my attention strays. I follow my mind as it jumps from memory to memory, lists of things to do, then taking dictation as finally constructed sentences stream across my cranium like a tickertape of CNN news.
- Working at relatively mindless, repetitive tasks helps my mind to wander. Greek cooking seems especially good for this, rolling koulouraki or stuffed grape leaves for Easter dinner, but I’ve done other things as well: working in the dish room at college, scraping catsup-soaked remains into the garbage disposal, peeling dozens and dozens of hardboiled eggs all day, or outside pulling weeds in the garden, down on hands and knees, scratching soil loose with cultivator, then ripping weeds out by their root hairs.
- Once the beginning of an idea comes to mind, doodling helps to nourish and develop it. It’s important the paper be not too elegant (I’ve made the mistake many times over of buying too beautiful a journal, one that’s impossible to actually write in). Yellow narrow-lined legal pads are a good choice, or even better the backs of envelopes. With the finest of black felt-tipped pens I scroll treble clefs and cubes and five-pointed stars until some words come.
- Avoiding the fast-approaching deadline of something I do not want to do (constructing a syllabus, say, or doing the income taxes) is another surefire way to get me working on a writing project.
- I remember the family stories my mother told me: about my great-grandfather who immigrated from Sweden, a carpenter and poet and state legislator, who in the days before WWII brought home an entire German band for my great-grandmother to feed; my great-aunt, married in late middle-age to a man who fondled my mother's teenaged breasts and eventually committed suicide; my flapper-grandmother, who got pregnant, then married, at eighteen and divorced by twenty-two, who worked in an office to buy the fashionable clothes and costume jewelry her second husband said they couldn't afford, who delighted her grandchildren with her handmade angel and tomte Christmas ornaments, her spun-sugar Easter eggs filled with woodland scenes, her off-key voice husky from vodka singing Swedish songs that lilted something about hey hop min lilla socker top.
- I connect remembered bits from my past, like trying to find the repeating section in the complex geometric pattern of my grandmother's red-green-white kitchen floor. My great-aunt had a sterling silver brooch inset with a blue butterfly wing; when I was ten years old, in Charleston, West Virginia, I paid fifty cents for a butterfly pin shaped from tiny turquoise-colored fake pebbles, its eyes (do butterflies have eyes?) two pieces of even tinier red glass. I look for analogues, metaphors, leaps of associative thinking that circle back to the starting point. Though I think of myself as a skeptic, these serendipities comfort me with their demands for preservation.
- I try to imagine how my great-grandfather's best friend (the German hunchback, the rest of the family called him) came to paint what we now call the Naked Lady Picture, a ripe pink nude fresh from her bath, the initials on the towel hanging at her side monogrammed with the tangled initials of my great-grandmother's name. I try to imagine that scene in Washington, DC when my not-yet mother refused to stay in the bed of her married lover, determined instead to go to her library school seminar and thereby effectively ending the affair with the man who may have been the love of her life. I try to imagine if she would have been happier in a different life.
- And, as always, I read. Lately, thinking about the deepening mystery of her life, I have been reading mother-memoirs: Patricia Hampl's The Florist's Daughter, Mary Gordon's Circling My Mother, Meredith Hall's Without a Map.
spirit (or the deadly sins approach to fueling creativity)
- Envy stirred the other day as I ripped open the Amazon box to pull out the short story collection I'd pre-ordered four months ago, the third book of a woman from my high school class. I'll be checking weekly the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, waiting to see the reviews that will no doubt be glowing (I read one of the stories in a literary magazine; it was wonderful). In addition to this classmate, two of my roommates from graduate school have, by my count, published between them a whopping ten novels.
- The Faculty Without Offices come out of the woodwork for the beginning-of-the-semester meetings, announcing out of strange mouths their familiar-sounding names. Adjunct English, they explain to the full-time faculty at my community college who smile vaguely in their direction. I refuse the title. In my latest experiment I’m trying to let anger fuel my writing, anger at the system and colleagues who face the same under-prepared students semester after semester but, when a new full-time position opens in the department, debate whether they’d prefer a Specialist in Emerging Literatures or a Renaissance Scholar.
- I tell myself that my greed is under control, not for boatloads of money (just enough for books and dental work and, maybe, some new kitchen cabinets) but rather for a secure job that gives me time and energy to write.
- The fear is not of death, exactly, but rather oblivion, the old "Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain" syndrome. In her daily obituary reading, my mother, at 78, marvels at how long people are living these days; at 51, I see the teenagers killed in car accidents and the 4o-year-olds whose families request donations to Hospice in lieu of flowers. Two days ago my mother missed guessing the year of her marriage by a decade; yesterday she asked if the neighbor who'd been the best woman-friend of her adulthood was still alive (she isn't). It's time to write.