August 7, 2020 § 21 Comments
By Sarah Terez Rosenblum
I’ve always been a commitaphobe when it comes to identity. From sexual orientation to avocation; I’m unwilling to claim one facet as the whole. Even with MFA in hand, and my first novel published, when Tinder dates asked, I never said “I write.” Yet in front of my students, I gave lip-service to commitment. “The work will come; just grant yourself permission to be who you are.”
Eventually, desperation, not dedication changed my relationship to writing. What I mean is, the man I was dating went back to his wife. I’m not sure why I found this change destabilizing. I’d weathered more consequential breakups—long term relationships, requiring the dividing of CDs and shared custody of dogs. I came to men late, but he wasn’t the first man I’d dated. And even that shift hadn’t shattered me. I’d never been one of those rainbow flag girls. The ones who start every sentence with “as a lesbian,” who wear their queerness on their tattooed sleeves. I’d faced no loss of self, so I figured my refusal to let one aspect eclipse my identity had paid off. But now, in the aftermath of this particular breakup, I felt formless; no matter I’d held back—same way I did with all my passions; afraid to dive in and find the water only two feet deep.
At first I wrote to imagine alternate endings; to linger longer with the man who had left. I wrote to muffle time until I could bear the ice-pick tick of minutes. Over time, my frenzy grew a thicket of fiction; eventually, I cared more about the character I’d based on the man than about the blurry past. Soon, I’d streamlined my teaching and quit scrabbling to live on internet Think Pieces. I gave up my apartment, moving in with my mother in Wisconsin. Less strapped for money, I blocked off more days to write. Meanwhile, my hours of writing built an infrastructure which supported my process. First, an inner wall to encircle my creativity. Protecting me from myself, it held my Critical Mind just outside. Next, an outer wall to shelter me from external forces. It kept me insulated from other writer’s voices and the whims of culture and commerce. These walls created space for me to invest in myself. It was true then, the smooth inspiration I’d soft-served my students: Once I committed to my craft, I was free to perfect it. After three years, I emerged from self-imposed isolation a writer. Finally I’d allowed myself to become who I was.
So, I’m forty-one, and what began as moony self-soothing has become a compact literary thriller. On the east coast, my agent has her sights set on the Big Five publishers. In the Midwest, I’m messing with some speculative fiction. Picture the writer, smug in her identity. She’s wearing tie-dyed leggings, drinking coffee out of a unicorn mug. She’s writing a story about a genie when the pandemic hits.
The first thing to go was the internal wall around my creativity. My Critical Mind rose above in a cherry picker. “Your mom is immunosuppressed, and you don’t know if your exhale could kill her! Hospitals are filling with victims! How can you write a story about a genie (Even if the genie represents the undervaluing of art)?”
Next, outside voices punched through the outer wall that shielded my sense of uniqueness. All around me I saw writers shifting their panic into Think Pieces. My Critical Mind found a megaphone. “How can these people write so fast about toilet paper? How can they think through their angle on Zoom exhaustion? What does any single point of view matter when we’re all having the same experience? Except also we’re not having the same experience! How is yours worth uplifting when the virus is highlighting systemic inequality, and the people hardest hit are disproportionally black?
Slog forward several months, and the genie story sits unopened on my desktop. I’ve heard from my agent sporadically. At first, sheltered at home in New York, she couldn’t find a hand scanner for my edits. Now. she’s watching the publishing situation with caution. Editors are being laid off and she expects more personnel changes across the board. In Wisconsin, the Supreme Court has long struck down the stay at home order and Covid cases are rising. My daily practice looks less like writing, more like trying not to check my phone. And God I miss the deep dives; distant sunlight making wavery shapes on the surface, while I’m alone in my depths below.
“I warned you,” my Critical Mind blares. “Making something your identity is dangerous. When it shifts, you don’t know who you are.”
I know what you’re thinking—my Critical Mind already thought it. There are worse things than writer’s block and a stalled career. I’m lucky I have savings. I’m lucky my employer transitioned classes to Zoom. But my concern here is identity, and vocation is just one part of that. The way we conceive of ourselves creates us. Identity is bound up in the constitution. It’s what we fight for in civil rights movements—whether Black Lives Matter or For God Sake Let Trans People Pee.
We are not all the same in what we’ve lost to this virus— it spreads unequally. Shannon Doherty is live on Instagram cooking kale in her kitchen, meanwhile with schools closed, many of the nation’s poorest kids spent spring with no access to lunch. Still, it would be condescending to claim that only the elite have the wherewithal to grapple with a loss of identity. I might have time to (slowly, painfully) write about it— and that is a luxury—but the sense of lost self crosses income levels and race.
Recently, when I should have been writing, I listened to a Daily podcast about Achut Deng who contracted Covid-19 after an outbreak at her Idaho meat packing plant.
“Did you consider just staying home from work?” A reporter asks her. Deng’s voice cracks. “To be honest, I did not. I was just thinking… I need to keep working so I can support my family. Thinking about it now, it hurts.” It seems Deng means that her own health had not been her priority. An orphan and immigrant, her focus had been on remaining the person who made a better life for her sons. Obviously, survival is key here; you can’t self-actualize till your basic needs are met. Still, tied up in Deng’s answer are self-esteem and personal integrity. When she was sent home from work, she felt some essential part of her was gone.
Being told the local watering hole is closed is not comparable. Still you hear the fear in those who flocked to bars in Milwaukee when they opened. Cloaked in complaints of boredom were deeper questions. Who am I if I can’t blow off steam over brews with my buddies? For better or for worse, we ground our sense of self in what we commit to. We become who we are through the things we do. And those people with guns, shouting about masks and haircuts? They’re angry because they feel threatened by outside forces. I’m not saying “there are very fine people on both sides,” but anger covers fear, and beneath their indefensible politics and disregard for the collective health of the country, just like me, it’s a sense of self they’re afraid they’ve let slip.
Over these months of uncertainty I’ve wondered: Do I regret committing to my writing? Would I feel less threatened if I had less self to lose? Maybe the right answer is identity is ever-evolving. A healthy ego can incorporate new information. In the end we’ll grow stronger from this momentary loss of self.
But I’m not ready for peaceful acceptance. It’s like that Think Piece says (The one written, pitched and shared across Facebook, while I was deleting twenty different first sentences); right now we’re grieving. As individuals and as a country, we are removed from the daily ways we define ourselves: as churchgoers; as stand-up comics; as gym-rats; as physically demonstrative friends. A sense of identity and selfhood are made manifest through a number of factors, and like so many, more than stylish hair, more than community, my sense of who I am is what, for now, I’ve lost.
Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as Third Coast, Underground Voices, Carve and The Boiler. She has written for sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, and Pop Matters. She was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Most recently, Sarah was a runner-up for Prairie Schooner’s annual summer Creative Nonfiction Contest and her work was published in their Summer 2020 issue. Pushcart Prize nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.
August 6, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Sonya Huber
The evening I finished your essay collection, This Is One Way To Dance, I couldn’t go to sleep afterward. The structure of the book was buzzing in my head. Does this ever happen to you? (I love that one of your essays is about postcards and correspondence, so I thought I’d write to you.) Your essays span such a wide range of time, and yet you did the most brilliant thing: rather than smoothing them out to make them all “contemporary,” you added notes at the end of each to denote when the essay was written and then when you updated it. One of the opening essays, “Matrimonials,” about Indian weddings and language, movement and return, family and translation and diaspora among so many other topics, provides a kind of map and timeline for the essays that follow. And then each essay is ended with a year for when it was written, and sometimes a second for when it was revised. And then “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me” has a postscript! I had never thought to do that before. You leave the essay as it is, a moment in time, and then enter a correspondence with the essay itself.
(And we, too, have been in a regular correspondence about the essay, emails and hellos on social media. And is it true that we’ve really only been in the same room a handful of hours in our lives? This is one of the ways that our small community of creative nonfiction writers was knit together, through the first few NonfictioNow conferences in Iowa decades ago now, in unassuming function rooms. I seem to remember talking with you before or after a panel about travel writing, where postcards had been put on the various chairs, in the same room where I sat down the aisle from gangly smiley Phillip Lopate and gawked at him as though he were a rock star. The moments of being that Virginia Woolf talked about, and how one of them was with you. And then maybe a decade later, a similar bubble. We talked for just a moment, stolen in time, about our shared experience—which I knew would come up in the book—of marrying a man with a dead brother. How that is such a thing, the presence of an absence, a man you both know intimately who is a version of your love played in another key, and yet a man you will never know.)
What is fascinating to me about your book is exactly that: how you handle the oddness of the experience of time itself, what it hides from us and what it reveals. The individual essays each present two timelines, one of your life moving forward and one of when you sat down to recall those moments. I think this is what created the mind-blowing yet subtle effect of this collection: the essays are ordered not by “when stuff happened” with the childhood stuff first. They are ordered based on when they were written, so that we are tracking your consciousness as it unfolds through time, as it loops backward and returns to previous themes and changes perspectives. The effect, for me, was of a kind of writing intimacy that one feels in reading letters or diaries: there’s a sense of being in the head of the writer as they have a conversation with what they are writing. It’s like turning over a needlepoint to view the back. But then—whereas a needlepoint’s reverse is often a mess of threads—what you do is you make the back of the essay beautiful. You tuck the ends in and connect them. That’s the image that I keep getting when I think about your book: a flower with many small petals in rings, like a zinnia or marigold or chrysanthemum (and I thought you’d like a colorful metaphor since this book zings with color, the color of saris and weddings and skylines at night and food and sepia memories). The loose ends of the essays all curve and dovetail toward a larger design, making something beautiful, and it wasn’t through forcing them to align. It was through exposing the pattern of their making.
The book is full of returns that nonetheless carry the reader forward, like the “Ring Theory” that is another essay. Even your “Acknowledgements” section at the back is a return, full with the people and places that come up in the essays and notes on process. And then the very last section, “Notes,” offers a series of tiny essays on process, so that the reader ends with the seed of each essay, its inspiration and additional moments and texts that prompted it into being.
What a brilliant and subtle design. I look forward to the time when we can be in a room together somewhere, on the other side of this terrible virus, so that I can hear you talk about process and writing and putting this together, adding yet another ring of petals around your beautiful book.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program.
August 5, 2020 § 16 Comments
by Dana Laquidara
I’m only a couple hours from home, but it feels like the middle-of-nowhere-ish. Why do writers and artists do this? Why do we leave the comfort of our own home—which for me includes a writing room of my own—in order to hole up in some other house to do that thing we do?
The short answer of course, is freedom from distractions. Let’s face it, home holds a lot of distractions. From the people we love to the laundry and to-do lists, our attention can only be on our craft for so long before our brain starts to signal a “times up” alarm. I am so aware of the life and the needs around me, I can hardly get to work if I think a plant needs watering. The idea of focusing on writing for almost three days straight with nothing else to do—and trust me there is nothing else to do here—appealed to my need for focus and efficiency.
So I sent off the required application, resume and sample of writing—all the things the gatekeepers of the residency wanted to convince them I am serious about writing. They want to know their applicants are not coming here to, say, smoke meth, hide from the law, or hook up with random strangers. And I passed their test. I’m here! I’m basking in the hours and hours of getting words on the page, writing submissions organized, edits done; all the things that I often do in fits and starts at home.
But here’s the thing about a writing residency that I did not entirely take into consideration:
There are PEOPLE here.
And the people here all use the same kitchen and yesterday when I was in my room writing, an overpowering smell of—I don’t know- beef broth? —but the fake, bouillon cube kind, not the good kind—filled the whole upstairs. Call me sensitive, but I was a little nauseous after that.
Also, we share bathrooms. It is a big old house with two huge unisex bathrooms. There are two sinks in each of these bathrooms and the toilet and shower each has its own enclosure. So it feels like we should leave the bathroom door unlocked while using the toilet or shower, so that someone else can come into the very spacious sink area to brush their teeth. But that would be weird because—did I mention we are strangers? When I took a shower, I felt like such a room hog. I mean, someone could have been waiting to brush their teeth, or wanting to pee, but they could not because I was in the back corner of this big bathroom, in the little shower stall and therefore had locked the door. Clearly we could’ve fit a whole group in there at once, doing several different toiletry things. But like I said, that would’ve been weird. So no matter what someone might be doing in there- flossing, combing their hair- they get the whole damn room.
On to the bedrooms. Each one is named after a famous writer; mine is the Emily Dickinson room. There are several of her books in my room so that I might channel some of her inspiration or talent.
It feels a little bit like freshman year of college except that no one is telling us to leave our doors open and make friends, because we are here to work after all.
But keeping my door closed did not prevent the sound of the loudest snoring I have ever heard from travelling through my bedroom wall last night. All night. And by all night, I mean the guy slept from 9 pm to 9 am. It was like the snoring you’d hear on a cartoon. It was cartoon snoring. If I hadn’t been tired, and then wide-awake wondering if he’s been tested for sleep apnea, it might’ve been funny.
Another thing about this house: I think there are more books here than in my town’s public library. This place has books floor to ceiling every which way I turn. The house is cluttered with books. This is kind of funny because I intentionally left my books at home so that I wouldn’t spend any of my writing time reading. I’ve been known to read a whole day away, and I didn’t want the temptation.
I’ve resisted all the books though, and am pleased to have gotten a lot of writing done. All in all, it’s been time well spent. If my resident neighbor is still here tonight, it will likely be another loud night. But that’s okay—when I go to bed, his snoring will distract me from the creepy doll sitting in the chair right outside my room.
There’s no place like home.
Dana Laquidara is an award-winning writer living in Massachusetts. She is working on her first book, The Uncluttered Mother.
August 3, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Morgan Baker
Imagine a head piece like a crown encircling your head, with a plastic shield attached with Velcro hanging down covering your face – the kind healthcare providers wear to protect themselves from COVID-19 when they’re working with sick patients. The patients are in beds, spewing, breathing and coughing droplets that are potentially contagious and can contaminate the people caring for them.
Imagine a mask – the kind you have been wearing to protect yourself and others from the virus as you walk and shop, and sometimes visit with friends and family. Some of these masks are homemade cotton with ties and elastics. You have used yards of material for your loved ones. The fabrics have been selected with each wearer in mind. Cheery, multi colored dog fabric for the dog lover, darker checked fabric for the men in the family; fabric with airplanes for the man who worked in aviation for 15 years; sheep for the daughter who likes animals; and orange for the son-in-law who loves that color.
Now imagine a classroom full of students. There are 16 of them. Once upon a time, they were in a small, intimate seminar room, sitting shoulder to shoulder, in a circle discussing their ideas for writing projects, and then sharing their work so their peers and you could mark up photocopies with suggestions on how to improve the work. Maybe the work needed more quotes, or better transitions. Maybe the story’s opening wasn’t catchy enough. Maybe the theme didn’t carry through. Students passed the papers along one after the other until there was a pile in front of each person ready to critique. In the small classroom, you and the students got to know and trust each other. You cracked jokes and laughed with the students as they gained more and more confidence in their work.
Take that classroom and stretch it. Now you will be teaching the same number of students but in a much larger space. Perhaps an auditorium or a performing arts space. The 16 students are spaced apart, six feet between each of them, all facing front – some won’t be able to see others. They are all masked. Some are wearing custom made masks; others are wearing paper masks ordered online. The one thing that is consistent – you can only see their eyes. You have no idea what their faces look like, except from the little out-of-focus pictures you get on the registration page on your computer.
You stand in front of this group, with your mask and shield on. Perhaps the school has given you a microphone to help project your voice across the auditorium you are unaccustomed to teaching in. If you don’t have a mic, you’re one of the lucky ones, you have a loud voice, you’ve been told by family and friends, so it should carry. Either way, your voice bounces off the walls of the mostly empty room, and you feel self-conscious with this new technology and garbed in protective gear.
Imagine critiquing the students’ papers in class. No more paper to pass along. No more pens. Only computers, behind which each masked face disappears as they read the work for the day and mark up their peers work online. To comment, students raise their hands to talk. You call on each of them, hoping you get their names right as it’s hard to distinguish them from their eyes. Do they know each other? The students share their thoughts, pushing their words through the masks covering their mouths. There is less room for spontaneity and joy. You are there to get a job done.
Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket (thebucket.com). Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.
July 31, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Rick Brown
We writers can be anxious types, prone to obsessing over distractions—both real and imagined—which can stall us creatively or shut us down altogether.
And it only takes a thought. Something disturbs the tall grasses of our mental landscape, and we are captivated. We feel disquiet in our bellies, our breath shortens. We watch, ready to bolt or fight. In that moment, the elements that comprise our everyday world— relationships, responsibilities, pleasures—vanish from our awareness, leaving only us and whatever it is that’s making the grass move.
But wait, this is a rather broad claim, isn’t it? We writers? Our awareness? Surely some creative folks possess what it takes to disregard those scary whatchamacallits in the grass. There must be at least several who embody the resolve of Joan of Arc, or the imperturbable serenity of a Buddha. Right?
Well, probably so. And for those of you who fit this description, my hat is off to you. As for the rest, who, like me, often experience anxiety to the point where it interferes with our writing life, read on.
I’ve been a worry wart all my life. I can lock onto a thought, usually something unpleasant or portentous, and cling to it with everything I’ve got. Once I do that, I’ll live with it during the day, and at night it will drive the plotlines of my dreams. Not only that, but I will stretch and distort the notion of my obsession until it resembles the images that I used to lift off the comic page with Silly Putty.
It doesn’t happen like this all the time; but under the right circumstances, anxiety will interfere mightily with the normal activities of my life—not the least of which includes my chosen avocation of creative writing.
Why is this so? Well I’m no psychologist, but I am convinced that deep in the folds of my brain there lurks a fearful specter: perhaps the subconscious recollection of a giant cave bear that once scared the bejesus out of some evolutionary ancestor, and quite possibly ate his cousin, too.
Normally, this primal “memory” is not a problem for me; in fact, on a conscious level I’m not even aware it exists. But when the right external stimulus presents itself—a late bill, the odd turn of a loved one’s voice, a writerly deadline—my sense of reason gives way, intellect goes into hiding, and that dreaded creature of old saunters out from his lair, with noisome, matted fur and steak-knife-sharp teeth dripping with goo.
But maybe that’s too specific. Instead, I’ll offer up a different analogy, really more of a cliché: Anxiety leads me to make mountains out of molehills. Under its spell, I can take the smallest concern and magnify it to the point where I can barely function. For years I assumed that this was normal. Thankfully, I’ve since discovered it is not. Through therapy, mindfulness practice, and the help of medication I am fortunate to have experienced a lessening in the frequency and severity of undue anxiety. Not that I don’t still encounter it from time to time, but the disorder no longer exerts quite the same hold over me. These days, I can function in spite of it.
As I write this, the writer in me now wonders whether I might also function because of it. After all, what is anxiety but a manifestation of thought: a physical, biochemical event to which I’ve assigned specific meaning? While I’m not normally a fan of catchy acronyms, I’ve often heard it suggested that “fear” might stand for False Evidence Appearing Real. This is actually a fitting description, one that could also apply to anxiety, at least as I experience it. And how do I flesh out this false evidence to the point where it appears real? By harnessing the very same power that drives the creative spirit: my own imagination.
How strange to discover that the mental process I consider so dear and necessary to my contentment and writerly output can also awaken a 40,000-year-old cave bear.
Bearing this in mind (pun intended), I think that it may be time to reconsider the concept of anxiety and what it means to me. In fact, I might even take the step of making peace with it. Instead of recoiling in apprehension, I might take a mindful moment to breathe deeply and assess the presumed threat. Chances are the specter of the cave bear will have moved on by then, leaving me alone with a simple choice: whether to fool myself further or to continue on my own way.
And from there, with my imagination already awakened, I might put that magnificent gift to better use in the here and now, perhaps by crafting a character sketch for the perfect villain, or bringing a fitting close to some vexing, unfinished essay about one of my worst fears realized.
Then too, I might even start something new—say, the gripping tale of a prehistoric man and his hapless cousin.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He has a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville. He is a founding member and contributor to the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and has recently completed a memoir manuscript, titled My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. Brown lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
July 30, 2020 § 20 Comments
By Beth Morrow
I made a new acquaintance recently who, in his days before three kids, a job in administration, and a divorce, had been an active and productive writer. He lauded me each evening for having sat down during this pandemic to flesh out the essays in my head with a Bic pen in my spiral notebook.
I couldn’t understand why he, as a person who’d felt the pull and power of writing himself, wasn’t doing the same. I thought that’s what writing was for: to internalize and digest the suppositional inanities of the external world into concrete and rational observations. To use our words to transmute the unease and anger and hatred and uncertainty into a story with tangible relevance. Writing has been the only way I have been able to convert the painful and potentially destructive events of my life into a series of stepping stones since I was nine. It has brought me through both my brother’s and husband’s deaths when family and friends failed, clinical depression when no one listened, and panic when leadership had cowered.
Wasn’t that why other writers sat down to the page?
Sure, he said, but it was impossible to get to the point of being able to write again with all the distractions that conspire to consume his days. Besides, he added, the rejections he’d suffered in his submitting days were evidence that he probably wasn’t meant to pick up a pen and keep going.
I disagreed. To me, these were the clearest indications of why he–and we–must continue writing.
Lack of time and focus, fear of rejection, unpredictability, worry. These shadow elements, in differing proportions, conflict in the creative mind to make the path to writing in times of chaos seem insurmountable and irrelevant. When each dawn reveals a new catastrophe or devastating loss, it’s easy to believe that putting more words into the world won’t make anything better. There are too many things going wrong, too many wars waging, too little quiet, too much outrage. The virus. So little makes sense, so much is frightening.
All of these are the reasons we must dedicate ourselves to putting pen to paper. Just as the military analyst has decades of familiarity interpreting complex battle plans to the civilian and the educator possesses the gift of compelling the learner to explore uninspiring content, the writer exists to experience, filter, funnel, and transform abstract feelings and emotions into words to light the way for others. If we can name our joys and gratitude, so too can our readers. If we can grapple with our invisible dread and illuminate anxiety on the page, we can share them. If we can admit the shortcomings of our own human experience with grace, we can spark introspection in a way that fuels hope, change, and growth.
The truth of the matter is that the act of writing allows us to cement the universe’s upheaval to the human condition–the wishes and dreams, fears and failures for the future we all hold–in a way that helps others to process the changing landscape, to face the overwhelm, grief, and sadness inherent in such a time, and emerge with the knowing that no matter the struggle, beauty prevails.
Examining the pain of life through the pandemic, Civil Rights, gender equity, and other crises through words is the writer’s way to absorb the collective energy and focus it through our uniquely beautiful and personal story lens to metamorphose us all forward.
When my friend asked last night about what writing I’d done, I told him I’d drafted a few paragraphs about the importance of writing through big challenges, and how writing is the first step in healing what feels like a life spinning out of control in a world we are struggling to recognize.
“I suppose that’s your way of telling me to get back to writing?” he chuckled.
“I suppose it is,” I confirmed.
Beth Morrow is a writer and teacher from Grove City, Ohio. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and blogs on health, summer camp, language acquisition, and, of course, writing. Visit her on Twitter @Buckeye_BethM and at http://www.BethMorrow.blog
July 29, 2020 § 30 Comments
By Rosanna Staffa
As a child in Italy, my father, a successful businessman, implanted in my brothers and me a belief in the mythical power of linguistic precision. He looked at us kids like a panther in repose, ready to pounce on a misused adjective or sloppy adverb. He labeled any expression that was too generic, bambinate, childish nonsense, a weakness of the spirit that would lead to every kind of reprehensible behavior as adults. I was his devoted follower.
When I went to New York after college, I lost my ability to speak. I had been a top student in English literature in Milan, but American was radically different. I had no idea what people were saying. Words roared, purred, and clicked in their mouths. I reached despair one night when I urgently needed to call home. The operator kept insisting that I could not get in the Circus. I hung up and cried. Only years later, I realized that what she said was: “The circuits are busy.”
I listened to conversations in cafes and on the subway. I faithfully watched TV: commercials repeated themselves until I finally understood and jumped up screaming, “Finger licking good!” “Pearl drops!” But an authentic exchange as I knew it was impossible. I could not recognize myself when I spoke. Much to my horror, movies were always “interesting,” food was always “tasty.”
One afternoon I walked into a small Women’s Bookstore on the Upper West Side and looked around. I had missed reading too much. A title caught my attention: The Bluest Eye. I started reading the first lines. It was like listening to jazz. I could not follow each turn, but I understood in full. It affected me so profoundly that my hands shook when I bought the book. I was frightened and elated. One could be precise in a fractured way I had never known existed. I was so thrilled, I walked all the way home to the East Village.
My then-boyfriend, now my husband, said that American was a composite of many languages. It was not static in its rules. He suggested I look at a book about quilts he had. I had heard of them, but I had not seen one. The quilts were beautiful mosaics. One, a “Crazy Quilt,” had an astonishing, shattered appeal. I kept going back to it. The crazy quilt suggested movement and harmony within disorder. I loved the fragments reaching out to other pieces, and the solitude of each, even in the closeness.
“My brain,” I told my boyfriend.
I bought a bedsheet at a thrift store, a marvel of cheap treasures that did not exist in Italy, and went back daily for velvet scraps. I went to work in our small fourth floor walk up with the bathtub in the kitchen. Friends came and went. Peeked, drank coffee. It was a dancer who fully understood. He sat by me while I was silently pondering which color to use for the center piece. Somehow he knew what I was trying to express. He looked at the quilt thoughtfully then pointed at the middle.
“Grey silk,” he said. And it was perfect.
I never told my father what I truly learned in America. My words in American found each other, one snippet at a time. I learned to love the nervy intensity of American. The last time I spoke to my father before he died, I assured him of my allegiance to precision. I did not say it might be of a different kind. He was very old, and it was his birthday.
Rosanna Staffa is an Italian-born playwright and author. She is a prize winner of the 2020 TSR Nonfiction Prize and recipient of Honorable Mention for The Tiferet Journal 2019 Writing Contest Award. She is a Short Story Finalist for The Masters Review Anthology and for the 47th New Millennium Writing Awards. She is a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her plays have been seen on stages in Tokyo, New York, Seattle, and others. Her play “The Innocence of Ghosts” was seen in New York Off-Broadway at Saint Clement’s Theatre and was filmed for inclusion in the Lincoln Center Theatre on Film Library. Her plays are published by Heinemann and Smith & Kraus. She is a recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant, a Jerome Fellowship and an AT&T/On Stage Grant. She holds a Ph.D. in Modern Foreign Languages from Statale University in Milan and an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University.
July 28, 2020 § 110 Comments
I was going to let this anniversary go unacknowledged.
I must have known it was a big deal. I wrote it in my calendar. One year out. July 26th, the day I took the decision to sit down for a specific amount of time, on specific days every week, to write. No matter how I felt or what else was going on.
For one solid year I have been sitting down, for a specific amount of time, on specific days of the week to write.
I wasn’t going to mention it. But that’s just false modesty. And feeling shy about outing yourself is counterproductive when you’re in the business of writing personal essays.
You might be wondering how I did it.
I had some help. From the Tucson Writer’s Table. What we do, is write. For two hours. Together. At a table. Every Monday. After fifteen minutes of pre-work chitchat, there is no talking allowed. That’s it.
Up until COVID our companionable silences were held amidst the roar of a busy neighborhood restaurant. Now, we Zoom—to say hi and bye. In between, I write. I’m not sure what everyone else is doing. We keep our cameras off.
I have kept this Monday night date for almost 3 years. Without fail. Nothing interfered with Writer’s Table. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I duplicate this at home? Imagine, getting even more done.
But first, I needed a hanger for my office door.
I got stuck here for a while. Writing “do not disturb” on a piece of cardboard didn’t quite do justice to the commitment I was making to myself. Three weeks and a trip to Kinko’s later I had a laminated door hanger featuring my alter ego—the tugboat.
Tugboats are slow, and their pace is steady, no matter what they’re pulling along behind them. I’m slow and it’s okay. It’s all going to be okay. I can do this. I love my door hanger.
When it’s out, I’m never disturbed.
I’m never disturbed period, because I no longer try to write in the run-up to kitty feeding time.
As I moved into a less sporadic writing routine I could see how I’d undermined myself in the past by, for example, waiting to sit down until I was certain to be interrupted by a starving cat.
But there is a time of day when my personal alertness peak intersects with household quiet and that’s when I write. Even if I’d rather be doing something else.
My former habit was to be seized by inspiration, crank something out, over-edit, and stop. Until my writing partner shared some amazing thing he’d composed and asked, anything new from you?
I was episodically committed. I got used to not writing for ever longer periods until, eventually, I stopped jotting down the very thoughts that ignited these “seized by inspiration” cycles in the first place.
I’m not special. What I read in books about writing is also true for me. I have to be sitting down and doing the work, so I’m available when the story arrives.
And no, I’m not going to tell you how many hours a week I’ve added. But here’s what I think: the perfect time commitment is located midway between resentment and contentment.
I have hundreds of idea files on my computer. And a book draft. I used refer to these as “unfinished projects,” a phrase that fills me with shame and anxiety.
Today, there are no unfinished projects.
There is only what’s next.
This is new.
Because I am working steadily, I know I’ll get to the ideas and drafts that I want to finish. Eventually.
More importantly, there is always something next. Which I start while I’m still editing what came before. No more work gaps.
All of this has made me more confident and less fragile in the face of rejection. Which has also increased because, hello, I have more work to submit.
I could have scheduled writing years ago, instead of lurching between production and procrastination. But I was afraid.
Fear has helped me get to jobs on time, adhere to deadlines, remember promises I’ve made–to others. In fact, it keeps me perma-stressed, lest I forget something and cause disappointment or distress or inconvenience for another person.
And fear is what kept me from writing regularly. Fear of prioritizing myself.
By taking this scheduled time for me, I’d be less available. I’d be saying no to other people. Disappointing them. And I have. I’m here to tell you it’s possible to do that and not die.
In fact, I’m happier.
Now, I’ve had a taste of discipline. I can see that it will take even more discipline to write and edit one entire book. I’m in awe of you book-writing people.
And I’m in awe of me. In the past year I’ve written amazing stuff I can’t believe I came up with. I’ve written terrible stuff. I’ve felt really stoked to be writing all of it.
I don’t wish I was writing someone else’s story anymore.
Sitting down to write on a schedule has healed even this. I’m no longer comparing myself to writers who are writing, and publishing, the beautiful things I wish I had written. But didn’t. Because I was not yet committed to being a tugboat.
Kirsten Voris is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Embodied Healing: Survivor and Facilitator Voices from the Practice of Trauma Sensitive Yoga (North Atlantic Books) and her essays have appeared in Sonora Review, Hippocampus, Superstition Review, and others. Follow her on Twitter @bubbleate.
July 27, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Carole Duff
Before the sun heats up the day, I retrieve a large scrub bucket, weeding fork, and garden gloves from the storage bin under the deck and head into the meadow and planting beds that surround our mountain house. My daily quota: one scrub bucket of weeds, so I don’t wear myself out and lose sight of what I’m doing. Although I love the grasses, flowering shrubs, meadow anemone, goat’s beard, wood aster, cone flowers, and yarrow, also known as Queen Anne’s Lace, it’s the weeds that get my attention. Most are stand-alone singletons, such as stilt grass, a recent invasive that can outcompete native plants. Though stilt grass is easy to pull by hand, the repetition becomes tedious. So many seedlings, going nowhere.
The weed I especially like to pull is a creeper, probably a variety of Pennywort, that roots and sends out runners along the ground. When I find that creeper—here in my grasp—I pull and pull and pull, following the vine until it breaks. Then I search for its root and pull again. A creeper is like a storyline thread or through-line that moves the reader from one rooted scene to the next. Meadow creepers like the Pennywort weave around a story’s characters and move the plot along without competing with the setting.
Another creeper that roots in our meadow, a mock strawberry, produces what my sisters and I call “starving” strawberries. Its flowers are yellow instead of white or pink, and the fruit though edible tastes bland and dry. Roots and vines of the mock strawberry—on my forearm—require digging with the weeding fork and even then, don’t pull easily.
The moral of this story is: not all creepers produce good threads, though there are plenty to pull. As Jill McCorkle wrote in an article titled “Haunted,” in the February 2017 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, “I have often told my students that if you walk around with your eyes and ears open, you can’t possibly live long enough to write all of the potential stories you will glimpse along the way.”
And so, every morning I retrieve my scrub bucket, weeding fork, and garden gloves from the storage bin under the deck and walk into the meadow and planting beds, eyes and ears open. After the sun warms the day, I sit at my desk and write—cutting fruitless singletons and looking for a creeping thread that pulls easily.
I won’t live long enough to pull all the weeds or tell all the stories I’ve glimpsed along the way. But I will achieve my quota:
One large bucket each day.
Except in winter when, like pulling singletons and creepers, I remove leaves from ditches and shovel pathways through snow.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and currently is seeking representation for her book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Faith, Love, and Forgiveness. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and now three overly-friendly shelter dogs.