Category Archives: writing

Beach Week [in images]

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Back at the beach for our yearly tradition (year nine, for those of us counting).

Last summer, I wrote about Mary Oliver and living while I sat in the sun.

This time, I’ve written a letter and a terrible poem that might not always be terrible.

I’ve also consumed a lot of ice cream.

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I’ve talked about missions (still on the brain), and I’ve helped grill twelve cheeseburgers, two bratwursts, and roughly six hotdogs.

I’ve made a rockin’ potato salad.

I’ve been grateful that Dunks is a mile away and I’m shocked they don’t know my order by now.

I’ve wandered down to the water in the dark, making Gramma nervous but coming back in due time.

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I’ve people-watched like a champ, playing “inner monologue” and creating bizarre plot lines to strangers’ lives (I hope they don’t mind…they’re quite entertaining).

I’ve walked the beach three times a day, and seen how the light changes against the sand.

photo 1 photo 2And now, I sit.

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After the Burning [Guest Post]

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I’m honored to share Hannah’s story. I met Hannah when she started dating my childhood friend, David, and I even got to be part of their wedding last summer. I resonate with a lot of what Hannah has to say about expectations. You can read more of her writing at her blog, hannahlynnmell.com.

 

When David and I moved to Kansas last summer, I envisioned countless bright scenarios: making our first home together, establishing ourselves in a new arts community, gathering a circle of warm-hearted midwestern friends. We drove the moving truck cross country just three weeks after our July wedding, headed toward David’s first full-time teaching position and a shockingly inexpensive high rise apartment in downtown Wichita.

The low cost of living meant that I could piece together part-time work instead of looking for a full-time teaching job myself. The set-up offered precisely what I’d hoped for: ample time to write. I’d unleash volleys of cunning, heartfelt essays, utilize the glittering Interweb to network with likeminded creative-types, and watch my freelance career begin to unfold.

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You can smell the punch line, can’t you? We make our plans, and the good Lord chuckles. I love writing and revising essays; I don’t love submitting and resubmitting them. After ten minutes on Facebook or Twitter, I’ve had my fill of social networking for the week. It wasn’t that I spent the year in ardent pursuit of my dream but met with disappointment; my ardor dried up by the end of autumn.

Turns out I thrived on the bustle of teaching full-time. Waking early, putting on pretty clothes, riding my bike to school: my old routine suited me far more than staying in my pajamas and plunking away at a computer keyboard. When I found myself brooding at school, singing joyful songs with children snapped me out of it. In my new life I depended on afternoon voice lessons to buoy my spirit – and teaching students via Skype fell far short of teaching them in person.

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As autumn ended and winter set in, I grieved the loss of my Writing Career as though it had actually existed. I knew that I’d continue to write, but I unhanded the illusion that it would make me famous or even pay the bills. Okay, “unhanded” is a graceful but inaccurate verb. God had to pry the illusion from my sweaty, clutching fingers the way I’ve seen parents wrest dangerous objects from their toddlers.

Meanwhile, David’s teaching job dragged him through a disillusionment of his own. I don’t know which made me weep more: watching my husband struggle or letting go of the person I planned to become.

Fast forward to spring. Autumn and winter make a lot more sense when the world begins to blossom. Letting go of the person I planned to become? I’ve begun to recognize the loss as a gain.

Lines of burning grass create pattern on landscape at dusk

In the tall grass prairies of Kansas, spring is a time of burning. Native Americans started the tradition of setting fire to the old grass in order to instigate the rapid growth of new grass. Viktor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” In prairie terms, we could slightly revise that: What is to give life must endure burning. As I survey the charred landscape of our time here in Kansas, I see fertile soil and green shoots. New dreams arise from the ashes of my surrender. David and I make plans to return to Massachusetts. I begin to outline a novel.

Catherine asked me to write about living the in-between. As she astutely observes, “We’re all there in one way or another.” David and I have experienced the in-between in full force this year, but I can’t remember a season of my life that didn’t feel like a transition. Like a baffled student, I return to the same lesson again and again. I’ll say it confidently now, with the windows open and the lilacs in blossom: the new life quickening within me will feed next year’s flames. When the grasses fade to yellow and the cold sets in, I’ll weep and question and eventually let go. I can’t tell you next year’s particulars, but I’m learning to love the pattern.

Hannah writes, Skypes voice lessons, and teaches yoga in Wichita, Kansas. She met Catherine through her husband David, one of Catherine’s childhood friends. Her blog lives at hannahlynnmell.com.

[Photo: James Nedresky at Flint Hills Images]

My Life’s Sister Ship

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Do you ever wake up and wonder: How the heck did I get here?

As though it weren’t necessarily a series of steps, a string of choices, but rather a falling-into the life you seem to be living.

As though you have had no agency at all and have merely shown up to the party, hoping to get some free chips and maybe a half-decent conversation.

And it doesn’t seem to matter how many good things are in your life, how many moments are beautiful or poignant or meaningful, because still you wonder what if?

I try so hard not to live in a dream world, but that is exactly what I do. I’ve created so many different plot lines to this one little life that they’re hard to keep track of. As each experience, each door (whether opened or closed) occurs, I watch a plot line drop off like an untethered dory, drifting further and further away but somehow, no less dear.

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Like the time I thought I would be a big-shot editor at a publishing house in Boston.

Or the time I thought I would marry a boy down the street (whom I never met but hoped to, someday) and we would buy a house in my hometown and walk the kids to school every day.

Or the time I thought I would teach English in South America, discovering another culture all on my own and overcoming my fear of living far away.

Or the time I was sure I was supposed to move to Europe, maybe get my Master’s in Christianity and the Arts (this one’s still tantalizing, I have to admit), and get some challenging and amazing job that combined everything I loved into some sort of mythical dream.

Or the time I would get paid to write, and somehow the ideas would flow endlessly from me. It was always effortless, as though I were a pool of creativity, knowledge, and wisdom.

Or the time I would teach voice lessons from the comfort of my home, making music with friends, performing in operas and living the life of an artist.

Or, if we go way back, the time when I thought I’d live on a farm with no electricity (yes, no electricity. or running water.).

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The first winter I was out of college, I discovered the Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 2011, he’s what I would call a winter poet: a little narrative, a touch of melancholy, along the lines of Seamus Heaney. The poem that made me buy the book was “The Blue House”, and some wouldn’t even call it a poem. Prose poem is the term, I suppose, since he doesn’t use line breaks, but it does the work.

It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I began to understand what was happening, what the point was of all this description of some imagined house. On and on he goes about joy and death, painting a house without brushes, a child who “too early abandoned the task of being a child.” It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I realized what Transtromer was really experiencing:

Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We don’t really know it, but we sense it: there is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

And there it was, the way I have felt my entire life – all the what-ifs and maybes and if-onlys rolled up into one simple sentence. There is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. You can stand on the deck of your life’s ship and watch as the life you could have led sails away, perhaps less real but all the more provocative.

This path we take (or find ourselves on) is a string of choices. It’s also a matter of opportunities and missed opportunities. It’s luck and blessing and shoot that’s terrible. It’s the real-life route while we still sometimes cling to the ghosts of those other ships.

How many are there?

For me, quite a few, of varying possibility and varying audacity.

The ship I’m on is beautiful and challenging and surprising. But those ghost ships can stay even more magical and enticing for the very fact that they’re unknowable, beckoning to me from the horizon.

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What Breaks Your Heart

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[In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be writing about specific poems and the moments they’ve created in my life.]

“This just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said from across the classroom. “I mean, has anyone really ever felt this way?”

It was the worst possible semester to say something like that, and I was probably the worst possible person to say it in front of. It was poetry that prompted it, a poem that – while perhaps heavy-handed – certainly deserved more than just a passing thought.

Funeral Blues

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Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

~ W. H. Auden

Many things had compounded in my life to make me a good reader of mournful poetry. My boyfriend and I had just broken up, and while I wasn’t in this exact state of mourning, I did recognize the echoes of helplessness. It was fall, and despite my love of red leaves and the smell of the fireplace, I was entering my annual melancholy period. It was my senior year of college, and all that lay ahead was frightening and unknown, and I mourned for my soon-to-be-ended college experience.

So I sat across from this girl and my mouth dropped open and words flew out and I leaned over the table in my earnestness.

Have you seriously never felt this way?

You’ve never felt like things were irredeemable?

You’ve never felt darkness more than you felt light?

And I knew the class was staring at me because this was an outburst and I should have been embarrassed. Instead, I felt good. I felt heard. I felt like I had spoken for so many people who’ve lost someone they loved. I’d spoken for people who entered darkness – even for a short period – and for a moment forgot what it meant to have hope.

I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember how the professor brought the class back together and steered the conversation down a tamer road (because the classroom is not the place to really delve deeply into things). Later that evening, though, I had an email from a fellow student. We had only chatted a few times, but she’d written me a message. She thanked me for speaking up, and she said sometimes people just don’t understand experiences outside their own.

Obviously.

So why is it so painful when I’m not understood? Why do I care if someone has never felt despair? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that something I should rejoice over?

It’s not that I want them to have a broken heart. It’s that I can’t stand my experiences or my feelings being disregarded as “unbelievable.” Because that’s what she was saying, even though she didn’t mean to. Has anyone really ever felt this way? is another way of saying, I don’t believe this.

I reread this poem sometimes when I begin to forget the hurting and scared young woman I was. I’ve sent it to friends who were going through surprising and uncontrollable things.

It doesn’t take just a breakup to break your heart.

And yes, as I read it now, I sense more the dramatic, the delusional self. I can see how it is perhaps a poem for an emotionally-wrought college student than a well-seasoned adult who has realized that no, the world does indeed go on.

I just don’t want to disregard the person who hasn’t yet realized this.

I wonder where that girl is now. I wonder if she’s come across Auden’s poem since that day in college. I wonder if she read it any differently, if maybe the clocks stopped for just a moment.

A Case for Fiction [Guest Post]

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As promised, I now introduce you to a good writer-friend, Bryn Clark. Bryn is known for his witty remarks and excellent memes (if you want to see those, head on over to his blog, allmyroads.com). I hope you enjoy his thoughts on the purpose of fiction.

 

A couple years ago, I finished my college degree. Normally, I hesitate to share more information. Because when I tell people I majored in English their reaction consists of one of three things: a) either they instantly think of the last book they read and then decide that if since I haven’t read it I am somewhat of a cretin and my education must not be valid (“where’d you go to school again?”), b) they tell me it is imperative that I read said book, it will change my life and c) they ask how long I’ve been working at Starbucks.

Now, rest assured, this is not another rant about “how I’m under appreciated” and “why English majors should get paid more” although I am and we should. But rather, I want to make the terrifically under-spoken point that you should all read more fiction than you do and you should certainly read more than the novel you’re currently recommending.

Now, there are scientifically proven social benefits for picking up a good novel (such as not sounding like an idiot when your boss references Melville or preventing you from telling an English major that they need to read Twilight) but those aren’t my focus today. Instead, I want to point out why you should read fiction, not just for fun, nor relaxation, social awareness or because the cute girl on the other side off the coffee shop happens to love Steinbeck. Rather, you should read fiction because your soul depends on it.

And I’m serious. Stop laughing.

To understand why fiction is important, we must first explore the concept of story. This is a notion that has been lost in our society. While no one today seems to think that “stories” have been abandoned, they have been, at the very least, abused. I say this because in an age of Twitter, Sparknotes and 30-second attention spans, our culture is suffering from intense story depravation. This is a vague notion to try and attach a statistic too, but in a recent poll, it was found that 42 percent of college graduates didn’t read another book after graduation. Furthermore, 80 percent of US families did not buy a book in the last year and of those who did take the great plunge and purchase one…57 percent of new or recently purchased books were not read to completion. Compare this to the number of people who access Twitter or update their Facebook status on a daily (or even hourly) basis, and you’ll see discontinuity. Its not because we don’t have time.

And to say that losing story would be a bad thing is an understatement. Whether you want to start with the epics of ancient Greece, which it is estimated were first written down in the 8th century BC (although they were an oral tradition for centuries before that), or cave drawings from the Aurignacian period in Spain dating back 40,000 years ago, we can all agree that story is nothing new. The art of storytelling has been cherished, taught and valued since the dawn of time.

And this isn’t a coincidence

Because the concept of story is universal; it’s in our DNA. A story isn’t just: “hey, let me tell you a what happened to me” or “this is how I felt after watching the Olympics”; they are not limited to the explorations of self that post-modernity preaches and are most commonly presented today. Rather, stories are a chance to venture outside of our egocentric realms and into something that is beyond us. They are, to paraphrase Cornelius Plantinga, a thousands pairs of glasses with which to see the world. Through stories I can begin to experience the Universal rather than what is subjectively important to me. In any language of the world, in any culture, tradition, time period- you name it- the idea of story is one that registers with people on one level or another. And although the forms of story change, though the tongues and traditions in which they are passed down can alter and vary across cultural lines, there are certain aspects to a story that always exist.

“Evidence!” you say. “We demand evidence!”

Okay, for instance every story must have a protagonist, antagonist and conflict. In other words, in every story there is someone or something that seeks someone or something and is prevented by someone or something from attaining the someone or something to which the aforementioned someone or something was striving.

Sorry, was that not helpful?

Okay, let me try this. If I encountered you on the street and said “I have a story for you!” then proceeded to inform you “I just bought a coffee” you’d look at me like I was Captain Ahab in the middle of your high school prom.

Because although I did tell you something, it sure wasn’t a story. Now if I had said: “Today I went to get some coffee and when I pulled into the parking lot I nearly ran into the light pole before getting out and tripping over my shoelaces on my way inside where I proceeded to make a fool out of myself by ordering a ‘small’ coffee at Starbucks (and ‘oh hey another English major!’)” then there are all the aspects of a story: the protagonist (me), the conflict (wanting to get coffee) and the antagonist (my perpetual ineptitude).  Thus, I told you a story. Although the cultural aspects of the story wouldn’t be the same if I were relaying this in, say, India, the elements of the story would still be present.

“But,” you say, “That isn’t fiction. In that example you’re discussing something that actually happened to you, and therefore we’re not talking about fiction. I understand that story is important, but why are fictional stories important?”

Here’s how: on the first day of my sophomore British literature class, my professor stood up in the room and opened with the following proposition: “fact needs fiction to survive.” I needed no further justification or explanation. The sun will rise each morning, politicians will never get along and fact needs fiction to survive.  Of these, I am convinced.

Because fiction is the color between the lines in a painting; it’s the harmony accompanying the melody of reality. It’s the third dimension of a scenic landscape, the focusing of a camera lens on a child’s smiling face. Fiction is the oxygen in the atmosphere of intellect, the chemistry between the bride of this world and beloved in the next and the salt in an ocean of life.

Without fiction, fact wouldn’t just be degraded, downplayed or lessened; rather, it would lose its very substance. Because within every work of fiction we find universal aspects of story. But rather than these aspects of story having been grasped or acquired from a previously existing notion (as is the case with non-fiction), they are being presented through the creation of one’s imagination. Thus, the imagination of an individual is creating artwork with subjective and aesthetic qualities, which at the same time feature universal elements. Not universal in it’s meaning, application or significance, but universal in it’s substance. Fiction is a created thing that appeals to a universality, which must be traced back to a Universal Source, which, for the sake of the argument, let’s call “God”.

What I’m saying is that fiction is a soul’s adventure among the mind of God, a role that fact alone cannot fulfill. Every fictional work into which we step is like us taking the hand of another and walking into the wardrobe of their creation en route to a journey with God we couldn’t have experienced otherwise. If you didn’t catch that reference then you really, really ought to take this post to heart.

“But”, say you, “what about fictional books that make a case against God? What about books of depraved morality, objectionable material? How can you say that God is present in those?” It’s simple. Because even within these books the elements of story (and thus universality) have been conjured up by a creative spirit and thus point to God. Furthermore, there’s no piece of fiction in existence that doesn’t deal with conflict. Try and present a piece of fiction in a writer’s workshop that doesn’t feature conflict and the answer will be akin to my boss at Starbucks when I called a “tall” “small”: “What da hell are you thinking?” Trust me, I’ve tried both. It doesn’t fly.

So every story has conflict. If conflict exists, then there must exist a right and a wrong. Within such, we can accept that there must be good and bad. If this universal “good” or “bad” exists, then a Being that determines and governs that universality must exist.  This is not to say that all fictional works bring glory to God, or that they necessarily ought to be read. Some fictional pieces are the equivalent of taking someone’s hand and being led to play Frogger on the crowded interstate of their utterly confused and misguided reality (seriously, have you ever sat in on an undergraduate writing workshop? It makes Alice In Wonderland read like Anglican liturgy). But even within these train-wrecked works, the elements of story intrinsically point to the existence of a Universal.

Take for instance (and I really can’t believe I’m doing this), Twilight…that one book you keep insisting that I must, must read. Now there are countless reasons why Twilight sucks, and I simply haven’t the energy to address that now. With its gross quantities of sucktitude in[CH1]  mind, however, there is all the more reason for me to use it as an example. Because within Twilight, there is a conflict between good and evil (although both sides are vampires, go figure). There’s another conflict over the love Bella has (depending on the millisecond) for Jacob and Edward. I’m sure there’s more, but after a while I gave up looking and started drinking. Despite the blurry lines, there is still undeniable conflict and thus a struggle between good and evil throughout the saga. Each clash between the two forces appeals to the reader’s sense of the Universal and thus has them gripped and rooting for some force to win. Amidst shouts of “Team Jacob!”, “No! Edward glitters!” and tight fisted grips of millions of pubescent girls (at heart) around the world, you have a readership that is drawn into a work of fiction and exposed to the Universal. Thus, Twilight, in all its depravity, is still the product of a creative mind that (albeit, in limited capacity) points to a universal truth and likewise a universal God.

If you take nothing away from this other than the fact that I completed an English degree with a good dose of snobbery and a chip on my shoulder then please take this: fiction is the act of another taking our hand and leading us into a previously non-existent realm. It’s the journey of our souls towards a land we would never have explored otherwise. Our souls need this adventure. We need these dances with the almighty, guided dives into the depths of universal truth that, though never understood, must always be explored.

Each piece of fiction, in its own way, is such a venture, and for that alone is worth the effort of a quick read. If you need recommendations: don’t hesitate to ask your neighborhood friendly English major (aka Barista). Whatever the case, do your soul a favor and start reading fiction today.

Also, I should get paid more. Oh, and, yea…here’s your Cappuccino.

 

 

Bryn Clark studied English Writing at Wheaton College outside Chicago. He actually does not work at Starbucks (they wouldn’t hire him) but is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is continually fascinated with the link between theology and literature as well as anything by Marilynne Robinson or Bill Watterson. Follow his blog at allmyroads.com.

A Blossom in February

IMG_1696You know that moment when you think: This person is going to be good.

My midwestern friend, the one whose marriage we celebrated with dancing last summer, is good. After three years of separation, three years of poetry-writing, slaving over images and words and form, she has become a poet.

Our senior year, as our friendship was forming, I remember wanting desperately to have her gift. Her sensitivity to acknowledging the small, her ability to work within structure. I thought she knew what she was doing then, but now?

Now, I see growth and shimmer where there was only the hope of it before.

~     ~     ~

[I bought two copies of a friend’s book of poetry last week, and they arrived in the standard yellow mailing envelope. Two, thin chapbooks. A Bow from My Shadowit’s called, and my pride over knowing such gifted and hardworking poets makes me give that extra copy away, a gift and an acknowledgement of artistry.]

~     ~     ~

For two years after college, I wrestled with what to do next. I wanted so badly to get my MFA, to write and stay in the world of creativity and critique. Part of me still wants this – still longs for a group of people who will force me to put thoughts on paper and shape those thoughts into something remarkable.

[I go to my writers’ group every other Thursday. I read to them these things I’m hoping are poems, and I eat up their praise and critiques alike. Better writing is happening because of these thoughtful, diligent friends.]

When I listen to my friend talk about her program, I am proud and jealous, happy and wondering.

Did I make the right choice?

[The same friend whose book I just bought said to me: “I write best when it’s not all I do.” And I knew this was true of me, too. I didn’t do my best writing in college, when it was forced from me. Sure, the revising and peer editing helped, but now? I am inspired by so much. When I doubt, this is what I cling to.]

~     ~     ~

And so, on this gray February Sunday, I watch as my friends blossom into themselves. I read their words with quiet joy and a pen. I write that poem that’s been bouncing around, and I begin the research for my Classroom Management class, because my path is shaped differently than I ever dreamed.

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Talks in Cars

He sits in the back of my beetle. I forgot that eleven-year-olds usually sit in the back, so my attempt at cleaning (a.k.a., throwing everything in the backseat) was completely pointless. I make excuses, some fair, some not so much, and he tells me he doesn’t mind. I ask if his room were clean. He says yes, usually.

We drive for thirty minutes through the snow, the trees bending over the road. It’s supposed to be nearly sixty degrees this weekend, and I’m dreading the brown bedraggled wetness that will bring – just in time for Christmas.

“How was school?”
“What are your dogs names?”
“Do you have any siblings?”

– I ask.

“What’s that?” – he asks, and I clarify:

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

We go back and forth for a few minutes, neither of us quite sure how to navigate this new, unique relationship. He asks the usual progression of questions:

1. Do you have any children?

No! I answer, up-beatly.

2. Do you have a husband?

No! I answer, equally up-beatly.

I can feel his mind awkwardly fumbling for the next question, because what comes after that?

3. Do you have any pets?

These I do have, thank goodness, and I tell him about our three crazy dogs and my eighteen chickens. He listens to my every word, but he doesn’t always respond. He looks out the window.

He asks what my job is, and when I tell him I teach Latin and then explain what Latin is, he goes on to ask if I teach Spanish? French? What other languages? I wish I could tell him, Yes, yes, I teach them all!

There is a comfortable silence now, like we’ve known each other awhile. Maybe having animals makes me trustworthy. Maybe fulfilling his dream of riding in a beetle makes me fun. Maybe the fact that I “look like a science teacher in those glasses” makes me knowledgable.

Either way, I think we’ve crafted an interesting relationship. One that will happen once a week, growing into each other and our uniqueness.

Athena and Poetry

I bought myself an owl necklace a few days ago. It has a long chain and pearls for eyes. He sits perched on a little swing, his body round and his nose pointy.

I bought it for an Athena costume because the owl is the symbol of wisdom, and Athena is the goddess of all things wise. It’s no coincidence that the goddess of wisdom is also the goddess of the arts: painting, drawing, writing, singing, they all mingle in her power.

I’ve worn it a few times now, always expecting to put on something else – something a little more normal, a little more traditionally me – but each time I reach for this odd gold owl. I like that when I talk, I can hold it, and I like the way it feels in my hand.

~     ~     ~

I taught my first poetry class to a room of adults, and I wondered What am I doing? but instead I said, Here, read this Ted Kooser poem about loss and brokenness, and let me define “imagery” and “diction” and “personification”. And please, pretend you’re in eighth grade and this is all new to you. Thanks.

I tried to present poetry like the mysterious gift that it is. What is imagery? You tell me. What do you see, taste, touch, hear, smell? What do you feel, and how does the poet make you feel that? What does Kooser do that other poets do not? Can you create your own images? Can you reshape this to be yours?

This is the work of poetry. This is the distilling of moments.

~     ~     ~

I slipped the long chain over my head as I got dressed in the dark. My first poetry lesson would be in roughly two hours. My first attempt at teaching this thing I have come to love would be over in roughly two hours and twenty-five minutes.

The owl swung down on its perch, its pearly eyes wide.

[Photo: Farid Fleifel.]

Dubus on Writing

In the cozy light of candles, I picked up “Poets and Writers” hoping to be inspired. It’s been too long since I wrote anything of consequence (and by consequence, I guess I mean fiction, which is a lie of its own kind).

I read of Elizabeth Gilbert’s success after Eat, Pray, Love, and who could imagine such response to a memoir? But it wasn’t there I found it.

It was later, reading about Andre Dubus, III, wondering who this Massachusetts-writer was, the title of his first great success – House of Sand and Fog – like an old friend, even though I’ve never read it. Teaching English at U-Mass Amherst, struggling with who the world thinks he is and who he actually is. And then he says it,

We can’t choose what haunts us.

Six words later and relief washes over me.

I’ve been trying to escape these hauntings my whole life. Over and over in college, my fiction felt stunted and half-baked, the starts of goodness, maybe, but the shortened ends of a truth not fully told. And my greatest fear in fiction? Dani Shapiro said it in her post on writing and being, “Was my subject myself?”

That’s why nonfiction has felt like such a defeat. I write nonfiction because I can’t get myself out of my fiction, so what is left to do? The summer I was twenty-one, I interned at a large publishing house in Boston, and once in a while I got to have lunch with employees gracious enough to interact with my eagerness. I picked their brains, my notebook covered in their scrawling answers. At one of these luncheons, I spoke with a recently published writer. She wrote a YA novel, we shared the same name, and I felt a natural kinship with her for these reasons.

“But, I can’t get myself out of my writing,” I said, hoping she’d have some magic cure.

“You can’t worry about that,” she said brusquely. “You’ll never do it.”

And she’s right.

We can’t choose what haunts us.

I write poems that surprise me. I write essays that shock me. Until I stop viewing nonfiction as second-class, somehow less of an art form, I will never be able to create what needs creating. I root for my friends whose plot lines fill their brains and seem to write themselves; these friends are haunted by characters, stories they’ve never lived, ideas and questions that map themselves out in imagination. From this vantage point, I will never be that writer. This is not to say I’ll never write a lick of fiction again. It is to say that my expectations of myself are changing.

I can’t choose what haunts me, but I can write the hauntings. I guess that’s all I can do.

What Do You Want Your Story to Be?

I was addicted to stories. I devoured them, one after the other, bending and folding paperbacks with abandon, dog-earring corners, underlining words that were beautiful, words that were true. Young heroines like Emily of New Moon and Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy books taught me how to be spunky and creative. It wasn’t long before I was weaving plots for hours on a 1995 Gateway computer in my bedroom.

I remember wanting other kinds of stories, too. Sitting at the dinner table long after all the food was eaten, we’d beg my father to tell us stories about his childhood. (My mother’d always shake her head when we asked her, saying she didn’t have any stories. I still find this hard to believe.) Dad’s stories often involved fish, foolish things my dad had tried because he was “curious.” The time when he was three and took the goldfish out of the tank “to look at it” is a classic; I can still picture the poor thing gasping on the living room carpet, the victim of an over-active mind and not quite enough supervision.

My mother’s friend from college told us good stories, too. I remember most the one of her throwing cherry tomatoes over the railing and hitting guests. Oh, and the one with blood-engorged ticks (who could erase that memory?!). And the one when the dog ate rising bread dough and its stomach rose with it, waddling proof that dogs do not know what’s best for them.

I grew up on stories.

The voices brought people alive, my great-great-grandfather and his stern Maine-ness. My grandpa whom I’d known but only awhile, breathed again when we talked about his stories of growing up on a fox farm. As I listened and began to craft stories of my own, I realized that one day, I too would have stories to tell my children.

Chatham

What do you want your story to be?

[He asks from the pulpit, and I think, I’ve been thinking about this all along.]

When you write your story, think about how it affects others.

When you write your story, make it one you want to tell.

This is the one sentence that rang through the sanctuary, hanging in the air, making the skin on my arms prickle with its truth.

Even though I’ve discovered the repercussions of writing a life before living it, here I was reminded that sometimes we need to shape the life we’re given. Yes, things happen beyond our control, and yes, sometimes we ache from those uncontrollables. But more often than not, we have choice.

I get to choose what story I’m living, and I get to make it one I want to tell.

~     ~     ~

I will tell about early Christmas mornings, all four of us huddling in one bedroom because we wanted to share it that one day. The lights from the tree bouncing off the mirror in the hallway. About waiting for the cousins to come and longing for the day to never end. They will ask where our traditions come from, and I’ll smile and tell them the story.

I will tell about riding horses in the sun and feeling powerful.

I will tell about discovering Laura Ingalls for the first time, about raising chickens and gardening, the plethora of projects done in the name of sustainable living.

I will tell about late-night summer man-hunts when hormones ran rampant and we didn’t know what to do with them so we ran, too.

I will tell about choosing a college and not being sure but doing it anyway. I will tell about loneliness and fear, about trying hard and singing hard and learning. They will ask about friends and making friends, about trying to love. I’ll tell about walks around the pond where so much got twisted around and sorted out.

I will tell about graduating and reeling in my own mind. About disappointments and mis-steps that, while not destroying definitely left me feeling useless. About dark months in winter when I was learning to trust and hating every minute of it.

redsox

And my most recent stories? They’ll include the discovery of joy. The summer we all lived at home again and spent our evenings on the back porch. Riding with the top down in my car, fearing the day when I’ll have to say goodbye to this lovely little bug that’s taken me so many places. Finding a church that allows me to be the silly, too-immature-for-small-group girl I sometimes am. Growing in friendships that have challenged me, shaped me, and made me think deeper than I ever could have thought on my own.

My story isn’t done, but I finally feel like I am choosing it.