Gnawing the Story Bone

September 25, 2012 § 29 Comments

“Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…
Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still”
—Thoreau, as quoted in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life


I am a writer first, but once I become a teacher, I will use smoke and mirrors to get my students unstuck, to get them gnawing on their own bones. We do rapid-fire writing drills. I play keen illusionist to their bored bravado, ratcheting the intensity with cliché—C’mon, guys! Time’s a-wasting! There’s money on the line! (Who says such things?) In fact, our whole selves are on the line, and we all know this, hence, the magic show. As writers, we sometimes have to trick ourselves into going there: we have to dodge our conscious minds with sporting maneuvers.

I do, anyway. Each time I write (or teach) I stand at this conscious edge, with my mind’s cartoonish miasma at my back—all of its limitations and lost points and monkeys and awful fucking chatter. Still, going there and beyond is the point, the singular, impossible point, and sometimes it is also the reward. The point is to hold my breath and throw my whole body into the deep that others may do the same—whether in writing or life. The point is to do it because others have done it before, and their doing it mattered.

So I find prompts in writing books or online, and I save them in my teacher’s Rolodex. My students sniff corny from a mile off; corny doesn’t get you there. The good prompts mimic the jumping off point, that feeling of running headlong at the abyss until your breath is ragged, your steps loose engines of wholeness, and your rhythm your own little rain dance.  I remember. I don’t remember. I think. I don’t think. I fear. I don’t fear. I love. I don’t love.  I am.  I am not. Good stuff comes from the litotes; some higher force comes to bear in the negations, and tamps the language into shiny coins.  My students fear the surprises that emerge here; they don’t want to share them. “That’s good,” I tell them, “go on…” And here again, I am convincing myself.

“What’s your larger theme?” my writing buddy Sarah asks about my current memoir project. I don’t want it, but I need her to ask this, to prompt me in this way. She says, “I think it’s: Why Alcoholism?” I have to stop for a few days and ask the question until it becomes a koan. What is the theme? What is the theme? Why? Where am I going? What do I want people to do or feel? The questions seem aimless, rising dust motes in my ears. And then I have it: it is not Why alcoholism? Not exactly. It is so simple, it seems silly to write it down, but I do anyway–on a sticky note with the closest available marker:


“What am I to myself/ that must be remembered,/ insisted upon/ so often?” Robert Creeley writes in his poem “The Rain.”  Ultimately, we keep writing and prompting and asking not because we want to know so much as we need the relief that comes after the knowing, the relief that comes after the awful black mounting and the storms marching upon us. We need the rain to come and wash us clean.

Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.

~ Want to Write Flash Nonfiction? Read the Rose Metal Guide ~

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§ 29 Responses to Gnawing the Story Bone

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    When I was a kid, I was desperate to understand the answer to “Who am I?” Maybe it was a teenage angst thing, or a 60s existential thing, or maybe as a third generation American, I was still struggling to become part of the tribe. The question has occasionally gone quiet, as I find various plausible answers, but then it rises up again, and I become as desperate as ever. After 65 years, I have discovered the power of Story, and hope it will finally provide the Real Answer. I am the person who has lived that story. Now, the problem is finalizing it. Sigh. Will it ever end?

    Best wishes,
    Memory Writers Network

  • Who am I?
    Asking questions…writing is mysticism. : )
    These questions are alive.

  • […] Gnawing the Story Bone. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  • This brought real emotion to me. I love how you celebrate life. ~Sonya

  • The first words of your piece gave me peace to an issue I didn’t know I had. It put it in a way that made sense to my jumbled noggin. I am a writer first, but once I became a…

    As a college student trying to make a life as a writer, I realize that at some point or another I’ll have to have an actual job to keep the lights on. The obvious choice is teaching and so I find myself in class studying literature, a thing that I love, and terrified that somehow I will lose the writer in me if I spend too much time doing something else.

    Those words you wrote answered the question who am I for me. I am a writer, and because that is who I AM rather than what I DO, it allows me to do other things and enjoy them all the same.

    Great words.


  • This post has a legitimately “human touch” and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for posting and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  • swsweetnam says:

    Sounds about right to me. People seem to have the best time reading when you dig deep into wounds, hopeless and hopelessly funny situations. All those lofty dreams, souffles you thought you had perfected that were nothing more than store-brand pop tarts. Writing the truth sort of brings it all out doesn’t it? The tough tom girl looks in the mirror and realized someone’s put her in a fancy dress.

  • Writing has a way of connecting to your true self

  • Reblogged this on qualitywithinplay and commented:
    Re-blogged to qualitywithinplay as part of my re-blog friday – keep you the good work

  • Your refined ideas reflect in your writing.. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  • i like it.. really awesome…

    expecting more like this :S

  • Thanks for such generous comments. Glad to have connected through writing!

  • Daniel Abram says:

    This post got me thinking about my own life. Keep on the great writing!

  • Reblogged this on EditorEtc LLC and commented:
    Love this, love this.

  • Hi Please take a look at my blog if you guys get some time?

  • Wow, beautifully written. Definitely deserves the Freshly Pressed, congrats 🙂

  • A teacher and a writer? And, all in Vermont? So happy I found you. I’ll be following you from the hot depths of Miami, also teaching and writing. This is a nicely gnawed post. Thank you for writing it.

  • akneis says:

    “asking not because we want to know so much as we need the relief that comes after the knowing, the relief that comes after the awful black mounting and the storms marching upon us. We need the rain to come and wash us clean.” Yes, yes, yes!

  • Hey fantastic stuff!!
    Do give my blog a view if you get the time!
    Hope you like it 😀

  • She says: Really beautiful writing. Truly. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of a certain someone I used to know. Me. 😉

  • I’m a writer too. I’ve been writing since 1968. Then I started teaching in 1975 and I emphasized writing with my students (poetry, short stories, book reports/reviews, and essays) for the next thirty years.

    In those ancient days, there was no internet to search for prompts so I wrote my own with a goal to link the poetry or literature to the world of my students.

    For example: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a great story for writing prompts and I wrote one for each act (that is five essays. My students had to find common ground with the lives of the two young out of control lovers in the story. Since Shakespeare’s writing is not the easiest to understand, my students listened to an audio tape as they followed along from the text. We did this ten minutes a day. Then we discussed what had happened in the play that day, and the students kept notes before moving on with the rest of that day’s lessons.

    One essay dealt with “falling in love with your eyes (the meaning of lust and its dangers)”. Other topics touched on violent street gangs, divorce, rebellion against parents, etc –all common themes today.

    When my students read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, there are six chapters and I assigned an essay for each chapter. Some of those essays dealt with racial issues and topics. Other prompts dealt with the working poor, homelessness, special education needs students, etc.

    I taught in a barrio high school, saw drive by shootings from my classroom door, was threatened every year by at least one gang banger that was one of the students, but when we were discussing what a girl means when she says “NO” as Juliet did on that balcony (the reason Romeo decided to marry her before he’d known her for twenty-four hours), the debate between those street wise boys and girls was lively and that led to the essay on that topic.

    However, thanks to the Internet, I have used prompts–not for my former students but with our daughter when she was getting ready to take the SAT for college. No matter how much the critics of public education groan and moan about the so-called failure of America’s schools (all a lie by the way–in fact, America’s schools are one of the best or the best in the world and I have facts to support that claim), teachers do not have the time to have students write as many essays or reports as they should.

    For me it was a HUGE sacrifice to have my students do as much writing as they did in my classes because that meant I had to work 60 to 100 hours a week. After the 35 hours I spent in class, the rest of that time was usually spent correcting endless stacks of student writing. I do not wish that on any teacher. It is mind numbing, exhausting work. Imagine a teacher with 175 students and it takes about ten minutes to read and correct an essay adding constructive comments to help the student learn to write better. One hundred essays would take about 1,000 minutes or almost 17 hours outside of class to correct and that is only one assignment written in one day in school which means teach five hours in one day and take more than 20 hours of work home to correct.

    There is no way that I would expect most teachers to work that hard no matter what the critics say about public education in the US.

    For our daughter, I found a link to all the old SAT prompts on-line and used them at home for her to practice writing a twenty-five minute SAT essay. The results: this hear, she started her third year at Stanford and completed her first paid internship this summer with a biomedical company that hired her at the end of the summer to work part time on weekends during the school year as an administrative assistant to the CEO.

    Writing is a powerful tool lift a student’s literacy level above below basic and basic. Studies show that the more writing students do, the better off they are at reading and understanding what they read.

    In case anyone reading this comment is interested, I found the SAT Essay Prompts at the College Board in addition to a few other sites I used for the SAT prompts our daughter wrote to. At home during 10th grade in high school, she wrote forty essays to forty different prompts and I scored them with the same rubric I was trained to use as a teacher. Then if she did not earn a high prompt score, she revised and rewrote to learn how to structure and support her opinions properly.

    I put our daughter through the same process I used with my students when I was still teaching. I retired from the classroom in 2005.

  • Dana Staves says:

    Your observations on teaching and writing are lovely, brutal, so true, and inspiring. Keep going. Trudge through the corny, the obligatory, the showy – just get to the magic. Thanks, Alexis!

  • Congrats to making it on Freshly Pressed!!

  • bluegrasspb says:

    Love the title..Gnawing the Story Bone. I might use that one when I teach creative writing to high school students next trimester:)
    On another note, I’m struggling to figure out the best balance between teaching struggling writers to tap into themselves and their stories, and the fact that most don’t have much command of language. Would love to hear your thoughts!

  • Martin Johnson says:

    I wrote a comment on this page and it was removed. I didn’t expect censorship on a site devoted to writing. But I guess only sugary compliments are welcome. God help us from finding out the truth about our writing.

  • Really enjoying this string of stories, and ideas and warmth, passion, people and difference.

  • […] Gnawing the Story Bone ( […]

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