Connections…

One of the things I appreciate most about my MFA program is my reading list. Each semester, I have to present a list of 8-10 titles to my mentor and then write short critical essays on each one throughout the independent study session. The best part of this is that I have control over the list. I am an avid reader and have a ginormous book collection, but there have definitely been times when I was assigned books that I didn’t like. Having the freedom to read what I want to read is close to heaven.

Right now, I’m reading Lauren Slater’s “Welcome to My Country,” a memoir about her experiences as a therapist as well as her own history as a patient. I picked it because I’m writing something similar–a collection of essays about my work with abused children and how it coincides with my on experiences as a domestic abuse survivor–and I came across this quote a few minutes ago:

There is no way, I believe, to do the work of therapy, which is, when all is said and done, the work of relationship, without finding your self in the patient and the patient’s self in you. In this way, rifts within and between might be sealed, and the languages of our separate lives might come to share syllables, sentences, whole themes that bind us together.

At first, I paused on the quote because it fits so perfectly in what I’m trying to do with my own writing project, but then as I thought more about it, I realized that it fits in with everything I write, and with the act of writing itself. Think about it. Most of us came to writing by the way of reading, and we fell in love with reading because something, a book or poem or essay, touched us in a permanent, transformative way. When we are invested in a book, we lose sense of the distance between self and character; often, we see ourselves as the characters. (I know I do, at least–I am Jo March and Anne Shirley and Lisel Meminger and Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood and Danaerys Stormborn, among others). Good writing, effective writing, seals rifts and binds readers to words.

While I recognize that writing can be therapeutic, and have used it as such, I detest how the two are so often confused. Especially in nonfiction and poetry, when the idea of “confessional” has become “spill your guts” and when the age of the navel-gazing memoir meant “memoir” and “diary” were meshed into one. If a writer is writing only for therapy, it is evident in every single word on the page. By all means, if writing makes you feel better, do it. Just don’t think it makes for a publishable, readable piece. Trauma stories, abuse narratives, etc–they all have their place, but they have to mean more than just telling your story. Tell it, please. Just tell it in such a way that it means more than just confession. When a piece is well-written, it is not the act of writing that is the therapy but the finished product–the book itself has the power to transform a reader’s life.

Reading is not a passive act. We may look like we’re still and calm when digesting a story, but really, we are participating. We feel what the characters feel, react to their reactions, celebrate their triumphs. That is where the themes come in and bind us together.

Everyone needs connection. Every last one of us needs to feel like we aren’t alone in the universe. The writer telling her story needs to be read; the reader reading the story needs to be a part of the story. Language is transformative.

If you’re out there reading this, what do you think?

…On the kindness of strangers

This doesn’t really have anything to do with writing. Or maybe it does, since we have to get our inspiration from somewhere, and because it is the smallest moments that make a piece of writing the most meaningful.

This morning, I woke up early and decided to finally go and get porch furniture. It’s a gorgeous day here in Louisville and I have a ton of writing due in a day and a half and wanted to work outside (and, too, shopping means an excuse to procrastinate, but that’s beside the point). Target had their lawn and garden stuff clearanced, and the Cartwheel app had an additional coupon.

Long story short, I wound up getting two folding chairs, a table, and a rocking chair. The two chairs and table fit into my car with no problem. As for the rocking chair, we’ll just say that I remembered why I don’t usually buy large things–my spatial awareness is lacking. I called on all my Tetris skills trying to cram this thing into my car–the backseat, the front seat, the trunk, seats down, seats up… I was a hot, sweaty mess and called the chair as many names as I could remember, and some I made up on the spot.

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(Such a small chair to have caused so much trouble)

Just as I was about to take the damn thing back inside and get a refund, a woman came up to me and offered to help. When it didn’t fit in her car either, she drove to her mom’s house and borrowed a minivan, drove back to Target, then followed me from Target to my house. I thanked her profusely, and of course offered gas money, which she refused. She just asked that I remember to pay the favor forward, and that sometimes “God puts people in our paths, or parking lots, when we need them.”

I write about a lot of dark things–child abuse, my own traumatic past, etc–and sometimes this means I overlook the beautiful things life has to offer. My past has taught me, among other things, that most people aren’t to be trusted and if someone does something nice, there’s usually an ulterior motive. I would never approach someone in a parking lot and offer to help, because I would be terrified of being lured somewhere and attacked. I’m not proud of this, but it’s the truth. I suppose I took Blanche DuBois’s lesson to heart–relying on the kindness of strangers risks relying on a Stanley, a predator. Today, though, I got a glimpse of the other side, and how things could be if we all would just stay open to beauty and positivity and understand that the smallest gifts we have to offer can mean the most.

As writers, we need to be open to the small in event but large in meaning events. Regardless of our genre, these are the moments that make our pieces come to life for our readers (when we’re lucky enough to have them!) Writing is a solitary endeavor, but it is our contact with the larger world outside our heads that gives us material for our solitudinal creations.

Everything is material. To quote the late, great Sylvia Plath, “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

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(My own little front porch writing station. Complete with birds singing and a nice summer breeze.)

 

Spaces and Places

Virginia Woolf professed the need for a room of one’s own, which I am lucky enough to have. (Don’t mind the messiness of the pics below; they are from while I was moving.) I have set up this room, a spare room in the house I share with my boyfriend, to meet my writing needs.

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Music, a reading chair, a gorgeous antique writing desk, plenty of dry erase and bulletin boards to keep me focused, five bookshelves… it’s perfect.

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But sometimes, being alone in a room is stifling. And, too, being home means remembering that there is dusting or laundry or dishes that need to be done.

So I flee. I used to haunt Panera and Highland Coffee, but they aren’t as close anymore. I still make the drive to Panera sometimes, though–they have the perfect balance of isolation and company if I can snag a booth.

Or, if nature calls, I head to either Bernheim Forest or Beargrass Creek, find a spot under a tree and by water and let the natural rhythms of nature dictate my words. I need the natural world to recharge my creative batteries. There, I can sit and remember the magic that led me to writing in the first place.

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But, too, I have written drafts on a portable table while sitting in the hallway at work, or on an airplane, or while in class. My writing group meets at a local Denny’s, and all of us have managed to create usable drafts there.

I guesd the point is to figure out where you’re comfortable and let that comfort and drive inform your writing. We can spend hours creating the “perfect space,” but if we’re not actually writing then it doesn’t matter.

What about you? If you’re a writer, where do you write best? What do you need in order to create?

So, I guess technology still has its uses…

My boyfriend has another woman. Her nae is Bertha, and she won’t leave our damn house. She lives in his office and, any time I think he and I may have a quiet night in without her, I catch him sneaking off to play with her.

Did I mention that Bertha is his computer? He goes on and on about her sometimes, her features, how she works, new software and hardware. I usually nod, and act interested, but honestly, I don’t care. I mean, I do–I care in that it makes him happy. But I don’t see her allure. I don’t understand being obsessed with an inanimate object and I certainly don’t understand the whole technology craze.

I suppose, in our new technophile world, I am something of a dinosaur. I love books, but I would almost choose not reading ever again over having to read on an eReader. I write all of my drafts by hand–usually with a fountain pen. While I like my blog (obviously), it is the only example of writing on a computer without writing out several drafts beforehand. Before I moved in with him, I barely turned on a television.

All of this just goes to prove how surprising it is that I have discovered that technology has its uses. Specifically, apps. One of my newer discoveries is “Writeometer,” an accountability app. Basically, you set up projects, writing goals, word counts, etc. It has a timer to focus writing sessions, which keeps me on track. (I have ADD, so anything that keeps me on track is a bonus!) My other recent find is “Writer’s Lists.” While it is more geared toward fiction authors, with character development and plot ideas, it has something to offer for writers of all genres: rhyming words for those of us who write poetry (or lyrical prose), lists of character names (I write nonfiction but have had several cases where I’ve had to change names), and many others.

They are both available on the Google Play Store and are worth checking out.

And yet, real life seeps in…

Planning and worrying and waking up

in the morning with items on the list

clanking like quarters in the brain’s tin cup,

this and that and what you might have missed

or who pisses you off… The numb

knockings of anxiety are like the heels

of sturdy little shoes steadily beating

on upholstery. It’s how anyone feels

having been put into a chair, meeting

responsibilities from a padded perch

too big for anyone’s ass...–From “Things to Do,” by Molly Peacock, quoted from Cornucopia: New And Selected Poems.

I have been home from residency for three days now, but until today it didn’t sink in how far I am. I don’t mean in physical miles; I’m lucky to live in the same city. I mean in mental miles, the distances we feel in our souls when we realize how far away we are from where we would like to be.

I think I have done well, fitting in writing with my home life. So far anyway–how can one tell these things after only a few days? But, I have fit in time, and I have a “room of my own”–a spare bedroom filled with bookshelves and an antique writing desk and bulletin boards and dry erase boards and pens and notebooks and all the things a writer could possibly want. I have ordered business cards and scheduled a writing group meeting. I have started blogging again. But the key thing here is that I have been home.

Tonight is my first night back to work. I work three days a week, twelve hour shifts, at a psychiatric hospital. I love the kids with whom I work, and in fact many of them will find their way onto the pages I write. Some already have. But it is visceral, hard, often gross, work. It tears heartstrings and bruises skin–sometimes, it even breaks bones. I have had shifts where I could do nothing but sit and want to cry, others where I yell at coworkers, some where I have even yelled at the kids. When you are surrounded by screaming and cursing and yelling and biting and attacking, how do you stay calm? How do you think “it’s all okay–I’m going to write now?” One of the perks of working third shift is that for maybe half of my shift–on a good night–I can sit and write and edit. But even then, sometimes it is hard to get in the “write” frame of mind. And then I have off days where it seems like getting the strength and stamina to face the blank page is far more than I possess.

And there is home, too. All the things like laundry and cooking and cleaning and emptying the litter box and letting the dogs out and making beds… how does this all fit in?

I find myself, more and more, missing my quiet room at the Brown Hotel. I miss being surrounded by writers and books and creative minds.

If you are reading this, how do you find balance? Where do responsibilities to others end and responsibilities to your own craft begin?

Spalding’s Festival of Contemporary Writing

I am reblogging an entry by my incredibly talented friend, Lonna. When I said that writing, though solitary, builds a community, this is what I meant.

Shining The Moon

At the age of 37, and five kids in tow, I went back to school. I ended up becoming an R.N., however it was not what I set out to do. I wanted to be a writer and sociologist. I still want to be a writer. In an English Lit class required for my original degree; I met Karyl Anne. She is the most remarkable poet. We had both taken seats midway in the room that invariably ended up being right next to each other. I was a hijabi and she was struggling with her faith; this was the spark for our first conversation. We both had a love/hate relationship with the professor. We admired his talent and loathed his pompous arrogant attitude.

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Back Home Reflections

This is my first entry on my new blog–a new start, or at least a more focused one. I hope you enjoy reading entries as much as I enjoy writing them.

As I write this, I am settling back at my desk after a ten-day residency at Spalding University’s Brief-Residency MFA in Creative Writing. For ten days, I stayed at Louisville’s luxurious Brown Hotel and attended lectures, workshops, and readings–all geared toward making me a better writer. There is a sense of connectedness and a high that comes from spending intensely-focused time with other writers. No work, no extraneous responsibilities–just writing, pure and simple. I left with a binder full of notes, a journal full of memories and quotes, a notebook full of writing ideas, and a mind full of anticipation for the upcoming independent study. (One of the best things about my program? I get to spend an entire semester working intensely with a published–i.e. “Real”–writer in my genre. This semester, I’m so blessed to be working on creative nonfiction with the incredibly talented Nancy McCabe, author of Meeting Sophie, After the Flashlight Man, and Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge: A Journey to my Daughter’s Birthplace in China. Seriously, look her up. She’s amazing!)

I always enjoy the time to get away and write, but more than anything, this residency brought home the need to be just as devoted to my craft while in the mires of “real life.” I’m hoping this blog is the start to that. It isn’t just being accountable to deadlines but being accountable to myself, to being the best writer–and the best person–I can be.

I was privileged to attend a slew of inspirational and practical lectures on writing, some of which I will share here. But I also took away the knowledge that writing, while necessarily a solitary craft, is also the bridge to a community. The community does not end when residency does–it extends beyond location.

This blog is my part, my contribution to the greater community.