Tag Archives: writing

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Good Things #17

No Ted Talks this week. Just some not-so-related Good Things.

Music. You know a song is good when it makes you nostalgic for something you never had. That’s how I feel when I listen to “Ashokan Farewell,” like I miss deeply my Appalachian home. I found out that it was actually written in 1982, even though it sounds like it’s straight out of the Civil War. (PBS miniseries, anyone?) I listened to this on repeat while I graded Latin tests – there’s nothing like grammar terms to make good music necessary.

Who vs. Whom. Yes, this is one of the good things. I’ve been explaining the difference for about a week now to various levels of Latiners. I’ve watched their eyes glaze over and their cheeks drain of all blood and I’ve fielded their desperate pleas for a bathroom break. Do you know the difference between who and whom? I can honestly admit that I didn’t…until I took my first Latin class as a sophomore and learned about the Accusative Case and Direct Objects and All Other Things Grammatical. Now I can use “whom” with aplomb, but who would choose to?

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Lavender spray. What is that, you ask? My mom bought me this amazing lavender spray from an herbalist at the Farmers’ Market and it’s amazing. Wait, did I already say that? I spray it on my pillow every night and it’s so soothing. I wish my muscles could soak it up.

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Taking risks. I wrote a poem my senior year of college. I remember sitting on my bed, not sure if I should write it, not sure if it was worth anything. It had been a moment – the summer before when I was twenty-one and freaking out about graduating – and I didn’t (and still don’t) trust my ability to recognize moments for what they are. But I wrote it anyway. I sat on it for a year and a half. I pulled it out again, brought it to writers’ group, deleted and added and shifted and shaped. I called it “Almost Family”, submitted it to a poetry contest at Ruminate, and it placed in the top seventeen. It was published in the September issue and there is my name in black and white print. There is the moment in writing that I didn’t trust and almost forgot. My first paid piece of writing. Now how to spend that twelve dollars…

Enjoy your Wednesday!

Where I’m From

I am from a thought-filled bed –

from pumpkin-pie candles and oak bookshelves.

 

I am from the white house on the slope,

homegrown apples and sage.

 

I am from the golden honey –

the towering pine whose long gone limbs

I remember as if they were my own.

 

I’m from dinners on the porch and too much laughing,

from an open-hearted mama and a dream-big father.

I’m from not enough cleaning and just the right living

and from stacks of books that beg reading.

 

I’m from “don’t wish your childhood away” and “try new food always”

and “Jesus called them one by one.”

 

I’m from cozy Christmas mornings and the yellow lights.

I’m from New and Old England,

sun-warmed vegetables and raspberry jam.

 

From sea-fishing, lake-fishing, ice-fishing,

when long-gone family breathe life again

for just that moment on the water,

 

and scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings

tell us the world.

 

[This is part of a link-up with SheLoves Magazine]

Good Things #15

I decided to write “Good Things Mondays” back when Monday morning was spent with my writing and reading and catching-up. This year, my schedule has shifted, and Wednesday is now the day for creativity.

So, are things just as Good on Wednesdays as they are on Mondays?

I like to think so.

Thought-provoking. I have recently become re-addicted to TED Talks. I posted one last week on being a twenty-something, and this week’s favorite is on body language. We’ve heard this idea before – that information is conveyed through non-verbal cues – but Amy Cuddy asks if perhaps our body language can change our thinking. It left me thinking: How do I portray myself just by the way I stand? Do I adopt a posture of powerlessness? Or the other way around?

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Music. I can’t remember how I found this song. Probably Pandora. And for once I was smart and wrote down the name. It’s called “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key”, and the version I like the best isn’t on Youtube. This one’s pretty good though, and when I heard his speaking voice, I was surprised he sang such folksy music.

Books. Right now I’m reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. I bought it from an independent used book store right before they were unceremoniously kicked out of their space of twenty-plus years by outrageously-raised rent (can you tell what I think about that?). It’s written as letters back and forth so that was an adjustment at first. It’s set post WWII, and I really like that time period these days. It’s also Shaffer’s first novel, and I like reading author’s firsts.

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Fall walks, bike rides, etc. Is there any other season that begs to be walked in? The leaves are changing here in New England, the air is crisp, and I revel in the particular way the sun looks in autumn.

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Fall foods. Crunchy apples. Warm cider. Pumpkins (uneaten on the steps). Cider doughnuts. Apple pie (as soon as I get to apple picking).

Woo-hoo! So, I submitted a poem to a competition a few months ago (okay, more like a lot of months ago), and while it didn’t win, it was one of 17 finalists. It’s called “Almost Family” and it comes out in the September issue of Ruminate. A step in the right direction. Now if only I could write more…and more… If you click on the link, you’ll see my name, fourth from the top in the poetry section as proof!

Words. Autumnal. Puerile. Euphoric.

Small Town Summer

What do you do when you realize old-fashioned doughnuts are the best?

You eat them.

It is the first week of summer vacation, and I’ve begun a terrible and beautiful habit. This past winter, a little cafe opened downtown. It’s so little that there are only three tables inside and two tables outside. They serve sandwiches and other things, but I go for the doughnuts. I’ve tried a few kinds: old-fashioned plain, maple-bacon (wow, sugar blast!), and a sort of puff-doughnut. But the one I keep coming back to is the old-fashioned cinnamon-sugar.

Yesterday morning, I walked down Main Street in the sun. I was alone, so I carried my journal, and I thought about all the times I’ve walked down that street growing up. I looked down the brand new development that’s engulfed my old woods, and I took a deep breath. Things change, I told myself, and who knows? Maybe those houses will be filled with children who discover life like I did, even if their woods will be a different shape.

I passed the street where dear family friends live, with memories of Man Hunt and swimming and screaming in fun. I passed the Richdale, notorious for its ugliness in our sweet town (and where I routinely purchased Snickers and Coke growing up). Past the graveyard and the old church I used to go to. Past the white house whose kids I still think of as tiny but who graduated this past spring. I hit the cafe faster than I thought and was a little dismayed to find one of the tables outside surrounded by three boisterous women (one of whom I used to know) – how was I supposed to write?!

Doughnut and iced coffee in hand, I sat down and took out my journal. I broke off pieces of doughnut, the kind with crispy edges and fluffy insides, and I thought about how a stranger had said to me recently, “Your hometown’s all backroads – no offense!” and I had looked at her quizzically and said, “Why would I take offense? That’s what I like.”, and it was uncomfortable, but only for me because she wasn’t aware enough to know what I thought of her.

I sipped my coffee and listened to the women pronounce “Elaina” like “Elainer,” “Linda” like “Linder,” and even though a part of me cringes at this botching of a beautiful sound, I secretly enjoy hearing it. I wondered if I would run into Eric of the white beard and full laugh and David of the middle-aged sweet arrogance and too-many-margaritas again. The week before they’d been sitting at the table next to me, their National Grid vans parked on the street, and we had been far too close to each other not to say hello. “Hello” turned into a twenty minute conversation.

[“We’re here every day!” they said. “We’ll be seeing you this summer!”]

I wrote and watched for about an hour, and I packed up only when I begrudgingly admitted I had ESL lesson plans to write. As I threw out my trash and headed to the sidewalk, a National Grid van drove by, and Eric’s white beard shown in the sun. He waved a big wave and said, “Catherine!”, and I smiled.

There is an ease to small-town living that I don’t know if I could live without.

Faces and Illuminated Manuscripts

I wander into the throng of people, past the long table covered in delicious-looking food, and into the gallery. I haven’t been in this building in nearly two years; the tile floors and walls of windows remind me of creative writing classes and theatre monologues and my first interview for college admission.

Now I’m twenty-four years old and attending the senior project of a fellow lit-journal friend. I’m not sure who I’ll run into, who will glance at me from across the room and smile (or not smile). I rarely like to read about the projects first – the words get all tied up in my mind and crowd out what my eyes are seeing – so I skip ahead and look at the repetition of trees and brick building edges. In the center is a dark, tiny room, with illuminated manuscripts meticulously created. Candles flicker, and I want to reach out and touch despite the “Please Do Not Touch” sign.

I know it’s hers when I see the faces, familiar faces that I can’t put names to. The oil paintings watch us as we gaze, and I’m shocked at the enormity of time and material and space this takes up.

[My senior thesis was “Poetry and Music”, a mere hour and ten minutes of my hardest and best and most exhausting work. English, German, Italian : aria, song, jazz. That was two years ago.]

I know why I’ve come when I run into an old professor, a man who sat across from me in a Salzburg coffee shop and didn’t have to pretend he was interested in our conversation. We stand talking, he, his wife, another art professor, and I.

Teaching Latin at a Christian school. Love it.

What’s next?

THIS. or THIS. or THIS.

You’ve got the moxie for that.

And even though I’ve never heard the word “moxie” other than soda, I know what it means, and I smile.

So it can be done! You did it – taught and created and studied – and now look at you! Yes.

My fear of being the one who “had so much potential” but never quite cut it ebbs as I see the lack of concern in their eyes.

We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

– “Blue House” by Tomas Transtromer

Pure Poetry

Dylan was the word-maddest of word-mad young poets.

Often the best poems happen when lines cross; when poets write in pursuit of the spirit while their words still roar with years of obsession and love.

Dylan never put his poetry in service to anything but poetry. He served the Muse; he wrote pure poetry. But what is pure poetry pure of? It is pure of thought and pure of feeling, pure of vision; its largest emotion is love for itself.

So goes Donald Hall’s essay on Dylan Thomas in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes. I am simultaneously awed and disgusted; what is it about those who reach the edge of acceptable and choose to jump that will always get my admiration? I cannot respect because I cannot agree, but these lines are still there, the beautiful creation of a life despicably lived:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

  The night above the dingle starry,

               Time let me hail and climb

      Golden in the heydays of his eyes

I am attempting the impossible: to live well and create well. To write poetry that serves more than itself but that refuses to be merely therapy.

[A friend asked me my senior year of college, “What is the fault of bad poetry?”, and I said as I hurried across the grassy quad, “Sentimentality.” I know some of the answers.]

Words as words and words as art – to use them well but not join the ranks of Plath and Sexton and all the rest. To learn poetry as another way, but maybe not the only way.

[“Fern Hill”]

Update

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1. Spring is springing. Finally. I will update the “View From My Window” picture soon so I can prove it.

2. The musical is over and it was beautiful. I keep attempting to write about it, but it deserves more time and thought than I’ve been able to give it. Expect a post soon, though, filled with quotes from darling children and an extremely proud director.

3. Went bee-ing for the first time this year. Sunday afternoon was spent in a smoke-and-propolis-filled jeep, bumping over bumpy gravel roads to get to the hives. (Propolis is a dark golden cement that bees use to hold their hives together – very strong stuff!) We checked on three hives and fed them. Oh, and we found a mouse nest (yes! a mouse nest!) in the base of one of the hives. Confusing, because Dad had put up a mouse guard, but the little buggers climbed in through the opening. It was filled with cotton-looking stuff, deer hair, and a bunch of cozy mouse things. Not good. Dad said, “Where’s the blogger’s camera?”, and I just shook my head; some things are better described than seen.

4. Did not get into the MFA programs. Am I shocked? Not really. I tucked the rejection letter in my briefcase of correspondences for the day when I will look at it and laugh. I’m not laughing right now, but I hope it’s coming.

5. Last week before April vacation!!! Can you tell I’m psyched? But I can’t imagine how hard it’ll be to motivate my seniors when we get back…ugh…

6. Finally figured out the email subscription thingy. All it took was, “Um, Harry? Will you help me?” and with one simple click he changed the entire thing. Embarrassing. So if you’d like to be notified via email of new posts, sign up! It should finally be working!

7. Listening incessantly to: The Shins Pandora Station. Love.

Have a wonderful Monday!