Tag Archives: writing

WriterTeacherSingerSpy

Salzburg

I have been laboring over this piece now for days. It’s the first time I’ve ever sung alto in a choir, and my reading skills are finally being honed after years of skirting by on melody. My music is all marked up in a vain attempt to make sense of the accidentals and crazy key changes and seemingly senseless alto line.

I take a deep breath.

I plunk out the notes again.

Jen tells me to listen to the recording, to try to pick out my part.

“Copland thinks chordally, so it’s really helpful,” she says.

The first moment we began singing it in choir, I thought: Have I sung this before? How do I know this?

Ah, years ago. In Boston — Jen was the soloist and my mom and I had travelled down to see her. It’s a big piece. An overwhelming piece. And I could feel right away that I had heard it before.

It’s kicking my butt.

~     ~     ~

Miss Hawkins, is English your life?

[Just one of them.]

In reference to Edmond Dantés and Mercédès:

Well, obviously they didn’t love each other enough, or they would have waited. They would have gotten married.

[Hold on: What about circumstances? What about life? Is it possible that you can love someone deeply but have it not work out?]

In reference to Aylmer and Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark:”

I think he really loved her. He was trying to help her.

[Woah, woah, woah! Careful. What is love? Aylmer obsesses over a tiny blemish on his wife’s cheek, to the point where it is all he sees of her. All her beauty and charm and kindness means nothing. Is that love? Trying to change someone? Trying to make them perfect?]

In reference to a grammar grade:

Wait – so you took a whole point off because I missed a verb tense?

[Yes, it’s called grammar.]

Why aren’t you married yet?

[Because I haven’t met anyone I wanted to see every day for the rest of my life.]

Really?!

[Here is where I wonder at their ideas of love and marriage. How I find it more amazing that anyone has found someone they like enough to see every day than it is that I haven’t.]

Why do you like writing so much? It’s boring.

[No! My heart!]

Why would you want to become a teacher?

[Here, I pause. Why? Do I tell them the truth? That it crept up on me and surprised me? That really, these twelve faces are the reason I became a teacher? And all their manifestations? They think I am not cool because I’m a teacher. This bums me out.]

Miss Hawkins, can I have some of your buffalo chicken calzone?

[No. Way.]

~     ~     ~

As difficult as the Copland has proven to be, it isn’t the piece that excites me. It’s the Whitacre that puts bubbles in my blood, makes my heart swirl. I listen to it over and over. I imagine da Vinci, consumed, obsessed, like Aylmer in Hawthorne’s short story.

the sirens’ song

I wonder what it must be like to feel compelled to create. To destroy the boundaries that the known world has imposed.

I sink into the low notes with silky enjoyment of their depth.

I paint pictures with my voice.

[7th graders: This is one of my other lives.]

In Search of a Good Title

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So I wrote a poem for my writing class this summer. I sat down and wrote it without thinking. I didn’t let myself overanalyze, criticize, or edit. I didn’t stress over line breaks or punctuation or even the order of the stanzas. I blocked out the part of me that hates everything I write and forced myself to tell the story that had been brewing.

I wrote it and I passed it in. It came back in a yellow envelope with the rest of my writing for the term, and my professor had written comments. Nix this whole stanza, she wrote, and I agreed because the ducks didn’t fit with the rest of the poem. Her biggest critique? Where’s the title?

That was August, and I’ve been laboring over this poem for months now. My writers’ group critiqued it and Jon solved a huge problem in the last stanza: What if you used a colon to introduce what the narrator is imagining?

Oh my gosh, yes.

We went back and forth over whether a word should be singular or plural, how to say the sun was bright without sounding trite, but the hardest part was the title. I told them I’d keep working on it, that titles are historically hard for me, that it’s nearly impossible for me to find one that isn’t heavy-handed. And every other week or so, I shoot Kate a text: What about this one? Or this? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I feel like I slink away with my head hanging because I should have trusted my gut on that one.

Why is this title so particularly hard?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it. I think it has something to do with the simplicity of the poem. It’s not frilly. There’s no fanfare. It’s straightforward and real. Every title I come up with is not straightforward or real. They drip with sentimentality.

If I didn’t care so much about this poem, I’d probably just slap on some sappy sounding empty phrase and call it a day.

But I do care. It’s one of the few poems that left my head and did the work I wanted it to do. It did that work, but then it did more. It became its own creature. It got up and walked on its own two feet. I refuse to do it the disservice of saddling it with a cheesy label.

So, whatever you’re doing right now, imagine me, sitting cross-legged in a green velour chair, wracking my brain for a title that is honest and clean and simple.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Henri Nouwen and a Broken Lent

I begin the Lenten season with gusto. Perhaps gusto is not the right word, because it’s more like a settling in – a settling into the rhythms of 5:30AM and Henri Nouwen and prayer. I am not so good at this getting up and reading. My eyes cross. The words bleed together and I struggle to read through again, hoping this time to catch the nuance, the challenge, the peace.

I attempt to bring some of this contemplation, this observation, to my 8th grade homeroom. They get better at listening and at least looking at me as I try to spin words that reach them. Prayer requests usually revolve around upcoming tests, but once in awhile, I am struck by their depth of care for this hurting world.

We drive home from Maine and the sun is bright pink and as I catch it between the metal arms of the bridge, I feel sadness. Sunday is over, the next week spreads before me, and I focus more on the setting of the sun than the the brilliance of it against the gray sky.

I take a picture.

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It doesn’t even begin to capture the beauty, and I wish for once I could bask in glory instead of mourn an ending.

I hear stories of birth – moments that should be joy and laughter – but instead end in deep pain. But Miss Hawkins, I didn’t think that happened anymore. I didn’t think mothers died. But they do and they leave behind babies and husbands and mourners on multiple continents.

I try to navigate being a Christ-follower and being a student-leader and the sometimes waking in the middle of the night with the secret voice that says Just run. Nobody needs you anyway. Italy still looks good, and think of the writing you could do. You’ll never save all of them, so run away and stop trying.

Then I wake up at 5:30. I grind the coffee beans, put the tea kettle on, settle in under my nine-patch quilt.

I read Henri Nouwen, a passage from the Bible, a prayer. I tell God in full honesty that I do not know how anyone gets through this life without Him.

I drive to work in the sunlight across the marsh. I pour another cup of coffee from a co-worker’s ever-full coffeepot. I ask for prayer. I smile at everyone.

This, I guess, is the place I should be. This place of “What would I do without you, Lord?” I know that it is in this place that good work is done.

 

So many terrible things happen every day that we start wondering whether the few things we do ourselves make any sense…Here the word “call” becomes important. We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people. But we each have our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us the strength to live out that call with trust. Then we will discover that our faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.

– Henri Nouwen

 

Too Personal

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“Why haven’t you been writing as much?”

“Oh, you know, don’t have much to say these days.”

Which is true. Lots of thoughts, not a lot of formation.

But the real truth?

“I read your blog – not all the time. Sometimes I feel like it’s too personal.”

So, there you go.

That’s what’s been keeping me away – this quick sentence from a friend that has made me reevaluate and second-guess almost every post I’ve thought of.

I don’t think of this blog as too personal.

“Really? You do?” I asked. “Because I was thinking how I leave so much out, how there are always these glaring holes of what’s really going on.”

~     ~     ~

This weekend, I posted pictures on Facebook of my trip to Brooklyn to visit my recently-relocated friend. We were smiling in the sun and looked absolutely ridiculous with ring pops.

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What I left out was that we both tired of those ring pops before they were gone. That
I got lost on the subway a grand total of three times. That I had blisters like you read about. That I wandered the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone with a backpack weighing thirty pounds slung across my belly “to protect the art.”

That I couldn’t sleep on the train ride there or home because my mind was racing to the blur of the landscape.

Even today, I posted a picture of the girl I babysit. The caption?

A woman after my own heart – how do you not love kids who beg you to take them fishing?

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The sun was beautiful on the water, it was still and quiet. The lily pads were in bloom and blue and red dragonflies swooped together among the flowers.

What I didn’t write?

That five minutes later, I had two whiney kids who couldn’t cast for the life of them (and apparently aren’t able to put a worm on a hook). There was pushing and accusations when a brother knotted the line, whining because it was so hot and the water bottles I’d painstakingly packed were “warm.”

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It was only about half an hour later that I decided:

You know what? Let’s just sit with our feet in the water, ’cause this is exhausting and I can’t take it.

~     ~     ~

So what am I trying to say? Something about social media? How it’s a manicured version of ourselves? How we present only the good and beautiful and leave the ugly at home?

A little.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are somethings that need to be ugly. It’s the unique parts that make someone worth reading, that make writing resonate with you.

Sometimes armpits are hilarious. Sometimes they’re just gross.

More than that, though, it’s an echo of what I’ve written about earlier.

There’s always more going on under the surface. Perhaps I do get too personal here, but it’s usually because it feels comfortable. It feels like the space to write things I care about. It feels like the space to figure out what it means to be me – both as a writer and as a human.

I’m sorry if that’s too personal.

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]

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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Ways I Recuperate

It started snowing unexpectedly, swirling around the light posts, coating the brick walkways. I was wearing a wool sweater (with, of course, a colorful yoke to suit the time of year and my desire to be Norwegian or Swedish or something along those lines). My five-year-old brown winter coat did nothing against the wind, and I kept tucking my fingers deeper into my fingerless arm-warmer-mitts, but it didn’t seem to matter.

We couldn’t get inside fast enough. The shop smelled of incense and the colors and textures that surrounded me made me think of India. I wanted to buy the entire store but settled on a few small things (can’t say, Christmas is coming) and I reconsidered getting my nose pierced, a thought I periodically mull over.

Then to a slice of delicious pizza with mozzarella chunks and basil. We talked about family and work and Christmas on the high stools, and we both checked the time because work was calling.

To top it all off? Peppermint mochas, hot and steaming. I wanted a whoopie pie. Or a croissant. Or a cookie. But I sipped my mocha and counted that as enough.

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That was Friday. This is Saturday. Aladdin, Jr., opened last night, and the looks on the kids’ faces made every frustration, every moment of What are we DOING?! completely worth it.

This is Saturday morning, and I am recuperating. That looks different, depending on what I’m recuperating from. Yesterday, it meant wandering around my favorite port town, relishing Christmas shopping and good food. This morning, it includes writing (as you can see), french press coffee, a chat with my brother, who, even though we live in the same house, I find hard to pin down, and Love Actually.

Because love, actually, is all around us, and it’s helping me recuperate.

Good Things #20

What’s that you say? The twentieth Good Things post?

Yes.

Who would’ve thought I’d stick to an idea long enough to write 20 posts about it?

[Follow up on #19: I plan to watch The Artist tonight…here’s hoping I don’t fall asleep!]

Blogs/Posts. As I said in my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and what it means and what do I do when my creativity doesn’t look like I want it to look? I came across this post by Stephanie Motz Skinner, and I love how she yearns for “the place where creative waters do flow”. The most poignant line to me, though, was this: “It’s easy to give way to comparison, which is the enemy of creativity.” There’s nothing worse than destroying your efforts before you even begin.

Music. My sister introduced me to this band, and it’s no surprise at this point that they hail from Washington State (what is it about that place that produces such phenomenal music?!). The Head and the Heart has a great mix of male and female vocals, and I like pretty much every track of their album. And judging from the image on this video, they are quite the eccentric bunch. Enjoy.

Flip phones. Yes. The ever-hated flip phone (does anyone even know what that is anymore?) is on my Good Things list. You wouldn’t believe the work having a flip phone has gotten me out of.

Catherine, could you just email all those people and ask…oh, wait, you have a flip-phone. Never mind.

Hey, can you look up…oh. Ugh.

Can’t you just pay with your iph— you are so annoying! Get an iphone already!

The thing is, I love my little flip phone. I love how it doesn’t ask more of me than to dial its little button numbers. It doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t, and it certainly doesn’t hold all the answers to my questions. And I like that – I’d still like to have an excuse not to know something. It’s freeing not to have the entire world’s knowledge in my hand.

So, thank you, flip phone. Going strong since 2010.

[That being said, I do wish I could participate in phenomena such as “SnapChat”, “HeyTell,” and various other hilarious pastimes. Alas, sacrifices.]

[I hope there isn’t an expiration date on photos. This one’s from my summer in Salzburg; we were laughing and dancing (and being annoying, I’m sure) along the river.]

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.

Good Things #19

This fall has been a particularly beautiful one.

Morning commute. This is not something I generally consider a Good Thing, but yesterday morning was the most beautiful drive. I looked out and saw fog lying low over the fields, the trees red and orange, the sun shining in that October-morning way. I wanted to stop the car and run through the fog, but imagining it was second-best.

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Books. Writers’ group met this past week, and we talked about John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. “I’ve never read that,” I say, and my friend hopped up, ran to his shelf, and pulled out his copy. I’ve only read the preface, but already I’m in love. Addressing the fears that so many wanna-be-writers have, Gardner says:

Most grown-up behavior, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second-class. People don’t drive their cars as well, or wash their ears as well, or eat as well, or even play the harmonica as well as they would if they had sense. This is not to say people are terrible and should be replaced by machines; people are excellent and admirable creatures; efficiency isn’t everything. But for the serious young writer who wants to get published, it is encouraging to know that most of the professional writers out there are push-overs.

I love this. Partly because I think, “I knew it!”, and partly because I feel like I need to admit, “Yes! It’s true! I DON’T clean my ears as well as I should!” I can’t wait to get into this book.

Music. I first heard this band in my city-friend’s apartment last spring. I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t figure it out till a few weeks ago when another friend said, “Hey, I think you’d like these guys.” I like their lyrics and I love their sound. Good writing meets good music. “When Your Back’s Against the Wall” is encouraging in a not-hoaky way – give it a try.

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Chickens. There was a long while where I was not grateful for chickens. I hated doing them every day, I hated how they acted like they were starving when there was clearly food in the feeder, and I did not like that I had to clean out the henhouse. While not all of that has changed (I still do not rejoice in the early mornings…), I am so thankful that I get to eat farm-fresh eggs and sell them to friends and family. It’s actually been hard to get enough eggs recently – something I’ve never had to deal with before – and I’m considering expanding the flock next spring. There’s nothing more beautiful than an assortment of eggs.

Movies. Okay, this is not so much a recommendation as a plea: I haven’t seen a good movie IN FOREVER. Are there any out there? Please.