December 14, 2015 § 4 Comments
A guest post from Matthew Gavin Frank:
After seeking the advice of my friends and colleagues on the early drafts of my book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food (which, among other things, engages a food typically associated with each of the 50 U.S. states), and after giving early readings from the book, I was bemused by the ferocity with which folks reacted to my choice of dishes—both the anger of those who took issue with my choices, and the glee of those with whom my choices gelled. People routinely told me that my choices missed the boat, and people routinely told me that my choices “nailed it,” as if there were really a boat to miss, or something to nail; as if there were a singular choice and an attendant narrative, and it was my duty to pick it in order to miraculously satisfy everyone’s passion about which food is most identified with a region. I began to wonder where this passion and pride came from, as I was told time and again (in not so many words) that I’d either stupidly interrogated or beautifully confirmed readers’ personal intimacies with both food and state, and the legitimacy of the memories which are leashed to said intimacies.
Few things excite the memory like place and food—the cities of our birth (sometimes where we still live), our first houses and the meals we ate there, with people. These are the chambers in which, and through which, we forged our identities, our relationships to the world. That’s why home is where the heart is. That’s why, according to biological anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi, our brains evolved to equate food with love—with the gustatory care taken to nurture us, nutritiously, toward adulthood. If we’re to believe neuroscientist John S. Allen’s claim that “The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting… [triggering] deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body,” then if someone else decides to engage the things that ornament our “internal states” (read: specific dishes as associated with specific places), this can feel like a trespass, a commentary not only on food and region, but on us. What else can we do but become defensive, as we’ve grown dependent on our memories of these things, however faulty—the mashed potatoes steaming on the teaspoon, the shaky hand of the mother bringing it to our lips, the way the red Naugahyde kitchen nook squeaked as we shifted and chewed, the way the weather moved the very specific trees outside the window—as being so “internal” and ours that they are above another’s interrogation, a comfortable old pair of shoes.
Of course the idea that good art aims to agitate rather than confirm, and a responsible audience agrees and wants, to a point, to be trespassed on, can be thin salve for many. As a means of self-preservation, memory often insists on itself—its rightness, its own intricately codified and filtered perception of the facts. And this is when memory can become dangerous—when it wants (as it inevitably does) to claim ownership of events, which extends to the places in which they occurred, and the adornments (edible and otherwise) therein. Those foods heaped onto those long ago plates were certainly once actual, but have since been rendered hazy and girdled by the sort of memory that insists of the rightness of the hazy and girdled thing, equating the haziness with a new actuality. Any confirmation of this rightness furthers a sense of communion, however rickety, justifying our memories’ suspicions about ourselves, and any threat to this rightness will compel the memory to defend itself, oftentimes passionately.
On entitling a story or essay, the writer Charles D’Ambrosio states, “The privilege of place is almost like a law of primogeniture, with the title inheriting the entire work, and along with that legacy comes the burden the implied promise, of carrying the weight of the piece to the end.” Choosing to associate a particular dish with a particular state is, in effect, an act of titling, and thereby, in some measure, a fool’s errand, saddled with the task of inheriting, and carrying the weight of the memories of all who deem themselves cozy with dish and state. The historical detritus responsible for the ways in which we see ourselves is comprised only of these memories, and if their story is faulty, so then, we might think, are we. No wonder then that, in order to avoid even the mildest crises of self, the knee jerk response to another’s perceived intrusion on these things we hold so precious—the components of the engine that drive our self-identifying—is often passionate dismissal or rejection, and an affecting of offense.
Food, after all, is the most sensual component of our survival (few people speak of water- or air-gasms). Certainly, the mouth is our most apparent anatomical vulnerability. There’s no flap of skin to protect it, no screen door. It hangs there gaping and inviting, takes in mosquitoes when we motorcycle, seawater when we swim. To look at us, the mouth is where we broke off from the matrix. Even our navels, our original tethers to nourishment, had the good decency to seal over. The mouth, more than any other part of us, it seems, is also our connection to place, to planet, and to each other. A baby maps out a complex and individual schematic of the world first by putting things (found around the house, found throughout the region of its birth) into its mouth. It is via the mouth that we shape and explain ourselves to others, bind our identities to language, profess our treatises on love and hate, lust and chastity, joy and despair. We kiss with the same mouths we eat with. We make of the mouth a gateway, both literally and metaphorically. The kiss is the initial and intense sign of affection between us, involving the touching and twining of these open vulnerable parts of ourselves, the precursor to the business of intercourse, the touching of those other parts.
Food—oftentimes carefully chosen and lorded over— is what we willingly allow into our affectionate mouths, after instinctually weighing the benefits and consequences (to both health and hedonism). These are the dishes we allow access to our tongues, gums, hard palates and throats, before swallowing them into our other shadowy internal corridors. This is our private territory. Of course, the things we let pass (which sustain us and also give us pleasure) will command more of our attention, attachment, a latching onto of our brains and hearts. In eating is a leap of faith and, in turn, an act of intimacy; a conversation—sometimes with ourselves, sometimes with others. Sometimes this conversation dovetails with argument, which is also holy, also essential. It’s easy, though, to confuse the act of eating with the thing eaten, and to attach the intimacy to the corn chowder or deep-dish pizza itself. In this way, we often mistake—via the intellectual/emotional hiccups bound to memory (personal, cultural…)—our participation in a universal intimate act for rarefied expertise.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, among other books. In his storied past, he ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco.
May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Josey Foo discusses how she came to write her exquisitely minute essay “So Little” in the new issue of Brevity:
Use of the third person was necessary because this piece happened to be too close. Use of the third person is for comfort. The person (me) feels like an intruder in the space between the chair and the window. Her motivations are all suspicious. She feels she has grown into something that must stay still and is distorted otherwise. At the same time she’s just trying out her body, hanging her body this way and that to feel strengths and weaknesses and wondering whether any of it is real.
I wrote a book a few years ago with the dancer/choreographer Leah Stein that were poems and notes on dance, and performed with her and her dancers in Philadelphia in 2012. I had to go up on stage and walk about, reading poems from memory as the dancers simply moved. They didn’t second guess their movements. They approached their bodies and movement with joy while I was filled with panic and just wanted to stop and think the whole thing through for one moment and then do it again for the next.
February 25, 2014 § 7 Comments
Guest Blogger Suzanne Roberts offers some excellent and amusing advice on how to behave at the VIP parties:
You may think it’s as easy as drinking too much gin and falling off a barstool at the lobby bar. But it isn’t. That’s standard fare at the annual AWP conference. No, to make a fool of yourself at the AWP takes some planning, some research. And a way to sneak into the VIP party.
Here’s what you do. Wait until the last night, when you are so exhausted you can barely remember your own name. Then find someone who has an actual invitation to the VIP Party. Did you know that such a party exists? Of course you don’t! You weren’t invited. And as it turns out, that’s for a good reason. But lucky for you, your friend was. But the guards—yes they have actual guards at this event and they are not poets, so you can’t offer them a cigarette and sneak by them—they take their job of protecting the famous writers from the likes of you very seriously, and your friend has more than one plus-one. In fact, he has five. Though your friend is good looking, is it possible that he has that many dates? Because the five-to-one-fantasy appeals to poets and non-poets alike, you and your plus-five package get into the party, and the guards start to wonder if they themselves should start writing verse.
First things first: sashay over to the buffet and free bar and gorge yourself on shrimp cocktail and smoked salmon, carrot sticks and chardonnay. You will have been too busy grazing to notice, but your friends have left the party. But by all means, don’t leave the party yet! Stay until long after the Pulitzer-winners and Poet Laureates are long gone. Stay until the guards indicate that it is time for you to stop with the shrimp and go get your coat. But first stuff your purse with bread sticks, carrots, and celery. You are your mother’s daughter after all, and in her words, they are just going to throw it away.
In the dim light (note the dim light) of the coat check area, you will spot a man who looks vaguely familiar. You try to place him and then decide, Why, that’s Nick Flynn! You have never actually met Nick Flynn, but you saw him give a reading at a literary magazine party in a dark bar the night before (note both words: dark and bar). Turn to Nick Flynn and tell him, “I just loved your reading last night.”
“Thank you,” he will say, pulling on his coat.
Because you don’t want to leave this exchange so quickly, and you are full of shrimp cocktail courage, you say, “My husband loved your book,” which is not just flattery, it’s actually true. Your husband read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City in one night.
“I’m so glad,” he says, looking at you from the threshold of the door.
“Oh yes,” you continue, stuffing your arms into your own coat. “He wouldn’t come to bed. He loved your book so much. He couldn’t put it down. He sat on the couch reading it all night.”
At this point a woman at the coat check says, “Hot damn. Poetry over pussy.”
You correct her, “No, Suck City,” meaning, of course, the memoir. This is an honest mistake. Nick Flynn writes poetry, too, though you can’t imagine your husband staying up all night reading poetry. You are pretty sure he hasn’t even read your last poetry book.
“Yeah, I guess it might have been suck city, if he hadn’t chose poetry over pussy,” she says.
“No, not the poetry” you will say, still trying to clarify, “Another Bullshit Night.” The woman laughs, but you swear you see her mouth the word “Turrets” to Nick Flynn.
This little repartee is not enough! You must follow Nick Flynn and dominate his attention for the entire walk through the indoor mall and back to the hotel lobby. And when the small talk about the party begins, make sure to tell him how you snuck in to the VIP party. He will look at you with a strange look, but not nearly as strange a look as when you say, “I just loved Suck City. I mean I love the poetry, too. But Suck City was so great. I’m looking forward to Suck City on the big screen.”
When he speeds up, desperate to catch up to his friends, make sure to match his pace step for step because you aren’t done.
Then tell him, out of breath because of your swift clip, “We…have…a mutual friend.”
“Who’s that?” He will look doubtful. Maybe not so much that you have a mutual friend but that you have any friends at all.
You tell him the name of your mutual friend. She is your colleague, and you know her to be one of Nick Flynn’s very best friends.
“I don’t think I know her.”
At this point you will hit—maybe punch is the better term—Nick Flynn’s arm and say, “Of course you do!”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You blurbed her book!” Make sure a carrot or breadstick falls from your purse when you say this.
“No, I didn’t.”
You will be adamant because you are sure that Nick Flynn blurbed her book. You have seen it right there on the back cover. How could he forget? “You did so,” you will say, “plus, I’ve seen you two together on facebook.”
You are met with a puzzled look.
But don’t give in. Rather than to take in the facts before you, be sure to stick to the facts in your head. Refuse all the signs. So Nick Flynn will have no other choice but to assent. “Maybe I do know her,” he will finally say. “Maybe I met her at the Atlantic Center of the Arts?”
“You see!” You are triumphant. Later you will tell your colleague about this little exchange, and she will say “Please tell me you didn’t say my name.”
You will have to admit that you did.
Nick Flynn shakes his head and says “Maybe I’ve had too much to drink.”
You have read Nick Flynn’s books, and you know he is a recovering addict, so you think, What? Nick Flynn has been drinking? O-no! But you say, “Me too” to cover your bases. Something in you knows that even if it isn’t true, you should say you have had too much to drink. Way too much to drink.
You continue to walk together, and every so often, you ask questions that Nick Flynn seems unable to answer, or you exclaim “Suck City” in reference to his memoir, and each time he looks at you like you are deranged, like you are a woman capable of sadistic ritual, bizarre and vicious crimes. Like he wants to escape but doesn’t want you to know he’s fleeing, just in case you will follow him. Which you are already doing.
And then Nick Flynn tells you he has to find his husband.
“You’re married to a man?”
The last you heard, Nick Flynn had married the actress Lili Taylor. But rather than question this, just think: Well things sometimes change.
When you finally arrive back to the hotel lobby, your friend Rodney will see you talking to Nick Flynn, and he will come up, introduce himself, and ask him, “How did Obama ask you about the inauguration? Did he call you or what?”
And you will turn to look at Nick Flynn and his face will suddenly rearrange itself. Not familiar because he was in the dim bar reading about his father the night before, but familiar for another reason—this was this face that filled the TV screen on inauguration day. And all of a sudden, you will be at a loss for words. But then you say this, which makes things worse, not better: “I didn’t know. I mean, I’d forgotten. I mean that you were the inaugural poet. But your poem, it was just great.” Your friend Rodney will look at your with a wrinkled forehead, his mouth opened into little frowning O, and you will smile and say, “Super great,” the word great trailing off, swallowed by the din of the lobby.
At that, Nick Flynn—now Richard Blanco—will make his escape. He will say, “I need to find my husband outside.”
You will think, Ah yes, husband. Of course he has a husband, as your brain reshuffles itself.
You will then try to explain what just happened to Rodney—an abbreviated version—and you will say, “Oh my God. I have to go outside and find him, to explain what happened.” You make for the lobby’s revolving door, but Rodney pulls you back, saying, “Oh no you don’t. I think you’ve said enough already,” to which you can hardly disagree.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information can be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net
November 18, 2010 § 3 Comments
Creative Nonfiction magazine is looking for interesting, true stories that focus on food, including restaurant reviews; tales of meals gone awry; secrets, tips and kitchen short cuts; confessions from cooks, chefs and/or servers; an examination of the kitchen life; and so on. To be used in the upcoming Food Issue (March 2011).
To nominate, you’ll need to know the title or specific URL of the post. Nominate your own work, or that of someone else. Nominate as many posts as you like, though the good folks at CNF mag ask that you not nominate the same post multiple times.
The deadline for nomination is 11:59 PM EST, Monday, November 29, 2010.
Nominate at: http://www.creativenonfiction.org/blog_nomination.html.
June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment
Glamour’s Seventh Essay Writing Contest
18th Annual SiWC Writing Contest
Non-fiction: maximum length 1,500 words.
Prizes: 1st: $1000 and anthology (per category). Honorable Mention(s) $150 each.
Deadline: September 10, 2010
Fees: $15 per submission
Memoir (and) Competition
Prose limit: 10,000 words maximum. Graphic memoir limit: Must fit on no more than twenty 7” x 10” pages. Narrative photography limit: Up to 5 images.
Deadline: August 16, 2010
Creative Nonfiction Immortality Competition
Essays must be unpublished, 5,000 words or less and written on the subject of Immortality.
Deadline: August 6, 2010
Creative Nonfiction Food Competition
Essays must be unpublished and consist of 5,000 words or less. Submissions must be true stories that incorporate or involve food.
Prizes: 1st: $1000, 2nd: $500
Deadline: September 3, 2010
April 15, 2010 § 1 Comment
Jay Nicorvo, in a recent Guernica essay, offers a convincing examination of what is wrong (and right) in publishing these days, and begs to differ with Ted Genoways’ recent essay on “The Death of Fiction.” Nicorvo’s argument, in brief, is that the big NYC houses have lost their connection to readers, while “limber, light-on-their-feet” indie publishers see nothing but opportunity in the new media new market. He makes good sense, and give us hope.
These days, editors at commercial publishing houses … no longer know how to reach the reader. Old media had a direct line to the audience that bought books, newspapers, and magazines. Publicity and marketing departments knew where to effectively (if not cheaply) spread the word about forthcoming titles and upcoming issues, expecting to get out what they put in. They’d print a few hundred or a few thousand galleys, mail them first-class to reviewers, watch the reviews roll in, and count the sales. But reviews no longer sell books. New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing departments have little central control over the flow of information … And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well — blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books. And this is why more authors like John Edgar Wideman have had enough; he’d rather self-publish and have a larger say than be hamstrung by a system favoring quantity over quality.
It’s the Ted Genowayses of the world, editors at literary magazines, university and independent presses, who still … (choose) those manuscripts which, to the best of their subjective judgment, are really the prettiest as they see them. And while we’re still in the recesses of the Great Recession, even as retirement funds and university endowments begin a gradual rebound, university-affiliated publishers are feeling particularly pinched. But the more limber, light-on-their-feet publishers—those not tied to state institutions funded by tax revenue—the indie publishers mission-driven to publish literature, they’re the ones surviving and even thriving, thanks to changing, cheapening technology and the preferred tax status that their missions afford them. This, the privileged position of the first degree, may be a main reason why the incoming editor of The Paris Review is leaving a storied commercial publishing house, and an imprint thought to be a last commercial bastion of the literary novel, for independent publishing.
… The best writers write because they have to, but the best editors edit because they want to. It’s the editors, not the writers, who need encouraging. Editors need to change what, and how, they acquire. And what better encouragement for change than a terrible economy? Or, in the words of Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” If such a crisis brought about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry, aided by the desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.
July 13, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Tucker Coombe
Winter on Overland Mountain––some 3,000 feet above Boulder, Colorado––could be exhausting, writes Karen Auvinen. Snow fell “a foot at a time” and temperatures could plummet to twenty-five-degrees-below zero. Winds “howled and clawed at the cabin, rattling the gass panes like a live thing.”
Surviving winter, however, was by no means her greatest challenge.
Auvinen’s intimate and unforgettable debut memoir, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, tells of the decade or so she spent on the outskirts of civilization. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Rough Beauty offers a glimpse into a life that’s pared down to its essentials, open to unexpected, even profound, change.
Auvinen was nearly forty when she began living in a rustic cabin about four miles outside the tiny town of Jamestown, Colorado. She supported herself by running a rural postal route, teaching writing at a nearby community college, and cooking once a week at the Mercantile Cafe––the town’s only business establishment.
Auvinen depicts her younger self as awkward and a bit prickly, “[p]roud to be called ‘fearless’ and ‘tough,’” she writes. When her first rented cabin burned down––leaving nothing but her truck, her beloved dog (a semi-feral husky named Elvis) and the clothes on her back––the Jamestown community “arrived like the cavalry.” One friend took her shopping for clothing essentials, another bought new supplies for Elvis, and customers on her postal route left her envelopes of cash. The town even held a benefit in her honor. But she couldn’t abide the attention or the goodwill. “I roasted on the twin spits of chagrin and embarrassment,” Auvinen writes, “…more uneasy with condolences and well wishes than I would have been with condemnation and blame.” She loaded up Elvis and headed to Utah for a few days of solitary camping.
Who among us hasn’t at least considered a life of solitude? My own attempt, decades ago, was short-lived and humiliating. One autumn, shortly after college, I decided to stay in a somewhat isolated, bare-bones house on Cape Cod. I’d envisioned long, peaceful days spent reading and writing, but instead found myself becoming unmoored without the comforting noises of summer. At night I’d wrap myself in a blanket, listen to the tick of an old shelf clock and recall in vivid detail every horror story I’d ever been told. I didn’t last a week.
Auvinen’s memoir purports to focus on her years of relative isolation on the mountain. But it’s the stories she tells of her childhood and her teenage years that are most affecting; without seeming melodramatic, they have a real sense of poignancy and immediacy.
An irreverent, headstrong kid, “I licked the sidewalk because I liked the taste of dirt,” says Auvinen, who grew up in a family where women were “parsley on the plate––accessories or helpmates.” Her father, an Air Force career man, ruled the family with tyranny and occasional violence.
Auvinen writes of her father’s decision, during her middle-school years, to relocate the family to Hawaii, and to euthanize the family dog rather than bringing her along. Before the dog’s final trip to the vet, he carried the struggling animal outside and tried to fit her into a wooden box he’d chosen for her burial. Karen watched in horror: “I couldn’t control the sound coming from my chest––the guttural, animal wail of grief.”
Karen began marshalling considerable will against her father’s bullying and “forged a dark armor to protect me and keep others at bay.” Before entering graduate school––in a symbolic rejection of her father––she changed her last name. He threatened to track her down. She eluded him by quitting her job and moving into a tent in the woods. She and her father would not speak for another decade.
Living alone, in relatively rough conditions, seemed to suit her. “My preference was for the earth, with its rough beauty, its inscrutability, its mixture of shit and muck,” she writes.
Gradually, Auvinen began to feel grounded by the rhythm of the seasons and to sense a slow “unraveling” inside herself. Perhaps most importantly, she was both buoyed and steadied by the stubborn companionship of Elvis. For years, even as she avoided friends and family during the holidays, she relished cooking dinners––roast chicken, perhaps, or rosemary lamb––to share with her dog. Opening her heart to Elvis, she later realized, was life-changing.
When Auvinen first set out to live on Overland Mountain, she believed that her “commitment was not to a person but to a place: “…I placed my bet on landscape, putting all my chips on wildness.” But for all its focus on mountain living, what this memoir really seems to be about is the difficult terrain of human love and connection.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature, education and dogs, and lives in Cincinnati.
July 2, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Brittany R. Collins
Four years ago, I performed a poem in the back room of a bar for a patchwork audience drinking beer from plastic cups. At the end of the evening, an older man in a grey fedora pulled me aside to say: “There are some things in this world that only children, animals, and poets understand.”
“Children, animals, and poets.” I hear him in my mind when I read, even now. I reach a clause or the white space after a period—for it is never the period itself that catches me, that bobber in the water, but the placid, smooth stream of the in-between. It is there that he is waiting, wading, whispering this line about audience.
Today, I am reading Annie Dillard by the peony garden when thunder rumbles. Ants scurry into the folds of the flower petals, tucking themselves into each crevice (each crevice a magenta duvet, a tortoise shell, a home) and I imagine them screeching tiny screams, sensing the atmospheric shift in their bellies.
They are always there, these ants, and sometimes a nuisance. When I clip the flower stems with sharp orange scissors, intending to bring the outer in, their bodies—glistening and black—remind me that the outer will always evade. They cling and grasp, immovable.
Watching their determination, I remember my clean kitchen counters, the aroma of Lemon Pledge, and I drop my scissors. I lay the blades down in the depths of my picnic basket and recede. You’re right, I think, watching the ants rush, frantic and frenetic (with glee? with fear? how similar the two feel, embodied). You’re right. This is where you belong.
There will always be unity and schism between the earth and me.
Sometimes the ants are welcome company. I whisper hello to them as I tread the tender earth, and they scurry. I have never seen a still ant. An ant of stasis. I relate to their urgency, their exigency. “Busy” is a guise for brimming—with glee, with fear. With both.
The ant-filled peony in the flower garden stands in contrast to the curated, cinched bouquet on the shelf. Both are beautiful and necessary. There is a time and place for them. Just as the worn arrangement at the supermarket serves its neon purpose, so does the untouched flower bush embody a sense of intent.
The Dillard book is The Writing Life. The writing life is also brimming, is also a confluence of fear and glee, doubt and surprise. It is defined by imminence and felt in the belly. The heart, head, and viscera.
Intent centers Dillard’s text, and all creative endeavors. “You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paintbox,” she tells us. “Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”
The contents of my paintbox are rumble, rain, and soil. Sitting in my verdant corner, reading these words, I am reawakened to the meditative side of writing: not deadlines, not comma splices, no. Just me and the page as a container; a mirror; a canvas for this fleeting world. How vivid words seem when I return to this frame of mind. Surely the transcendentalists zoomed in on matters of heart and soul—interiority and cyclicality—before they fretted over fragments, and it is this attunement to the particular, the real, that grounds me when I lose the meat and purpose of my work—when I prize the scintillating (if frayed) grocery store bouquet over the messy elegance of an unweeded garden.
“A week later,” Dillard writes, “I had a visit so instructive that when it was over, and I had fully absorbed its lesson, I considered never opening my door again. This was a visit from children.” I reach this line, and there again is my audience member, wearing his grey fedora and a wise and witty grin. Playing in the sandbox, its own expansive paintbox, where creation and erasure meet at such a fluid line, the child knows something of articulation and attention. I can’t help but feel that all creativity is a seeking for return—for the restoration of this perceptual attunement to the granularity of the everyday.
So how do we capture such specificity in our work? How do we “paint” the particulars of experience as if we still carry a toy magnifying glass? I look down at my foot, feeling a small tickle, to see the picnic ants from the peonies crawling across my skin. I am Birkenstocked and sticky with humidity, the sky clotted with clouds. I smell predictive petrichor; I taste alfalfa, freshly mown. And I realize, clutching Dillard, that it will always be concrete nouns that root me—first in the world, and then in my writing.
To paint a scene on canvas, one needs color, texture, and a subject. So it is with words.
For why tell you it was moving, when I can instead show you the mountains?
Brittany R. Collins has written for English Journal and Literacy & NCTE, of the National Council of Teachers of English; Insight, of Dana Farber Cancer Institute; and The Mighty, among others. She is a Reader for the Harvard Review and New England Review and enjoys coaching other writers as a Group Manager at Write the World LLC. Her anthology, Learning from Loss: How Teachers Tackle Mortality in the Classroom, is in preparation– author-educators interested in contributing should contact her at email@example.com for more information.
June 27, 2018 § 13 Comments
By Claudia Hinz
Joyce Carol Oates describes the anticipation as “low dread.” The fact that Oates, one of the most prolific and decorated writers of our times, approaches her writing desk with “low dread” leaves little hope for the rest of us mere mortals. There are long mornings of procrastination when I am assiduously wiping down the kitchen counters, deciding to do a second run through with granite spray before buffing out the cloudy spots, that I am mentally ticking through every thing I would rather do.
There are weeks, months when I would rather be doing anything else besides writing. And yet, if I am not writing, I am not myself. Or rather, I am my grumpy and irritable self. The self that feels she has scooted along the surface, checked off items on the to-do list, but never set foot in a whole other dimension of my world. As writers, we may experience those rare and near perfect moments, maybe even long minutes or hours of these moments, in which we are like athletes, outside ourselves or so deeply within ourselves, that we feel outside of time. The coffee goes cold and hours disappear. After a good day of writing, I leave my desk and get into my car for errands, pick up a child at school, take the dog to the park, and while I know I am engaging with the “real world,” it feels like the truer world is inside me and now, partially on the page, and I’m itching to get back to play. But these moments are fleeting. So how does a writer lay the groundwork for more of these days at the desk and fewer “low dread” days?
Writers have much to learn from sports psychology and the practices of successful athletes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years at track meets, watching both my own children and Olympic athletes prepare to compete. Often, it is the image of my daughter in the infield before a race, accelerating her steps in strides, driving her knees high in the air, that I think of when I’m sitting down to work. All the pre-race preparations, the development of a routine performed exactly the same way time and time again, are ways to get out of one’s head, to stop the ego from needling with doubt and allow the body to do what it has trained to do.
If I do the same warm up every morning in preparation to write, I am communicating to my body that I am ready. I am prepared to begin the process of descending deep within. But what about that voice in my head that is telling me none of this is good enough, that no one will ever read what I have spent years struggling to voice?
Athletes rely strongly on visualization. Olympic runners may pause in their starting blocks, eyes closed as they sway; they envision the whole race as they have trained to run it. Before beginning her floor routine, World champion and Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber paused in the corner of the mat and performed a series of twisting movements, arms wrapped tightly around herself as she visualized her tumbling routine.
What an athlete says to herself before competing is the ultimate preparation. This mantra is seldom about going out to achieve a lifetime personal record. Instead, this self-talk revolves around the confidence an athlete has built in the daily routines of practice, drills, free throws, hours and hours tumbling down a 4-inch wooden beam so the mind doesn’t have to think. The body is on auto-pilot. It has been trained what to do. The self-talk may be as simple as, I am ready.
Now, there is one more important aspect influencing an athlete’s mindset and her performance: the elements beyond her control. As an athlete, there is always illness and injury to contend with. There are also the elements of weather, a headwind in your face or a teacher or boss who is being difficult. Things will not go perfectly. An athlete who strives for perfectionism will find herself on an impossible and destructive course. The only thing within our control is the practice, and the dedication to it day in and day out.
The greatest javelin thrower in the world taught himself everything about the sport by watching YouTube videos. Julius Yego grew up in a small village in Kenya. As a child he sharpened sticks into points that would pierce the earth when launched into the air. There was no one to train him, but he knew instinctively that if he practiced like the professionals on the videos he studied, he, too could be successful. He won the world championships and took silver at the Olympics in Rio.
I’m not suggesting that writers should imitate the practices of the best writers, although one can certainly find models of dogged and indefatigable work practices in Flaubert’s ungodly hours and Joyce Carol Oates’ voluminous production. It is the practice itself we must cultivate. The practice is enough. Enough to set the stage to write from that place of dreams, as Robert Olin Butler urges, from the white hot center we are striving to touch, the mysteries we are so curious to explore and express about ourselves and the world beyond our desks.
“I didn’t give up,” Julius Yego told a reporter. And perhaps herein is the best lesson: if we keep showing up, sitting down or lying down or however you can get comfortable in the most uncomfortable interrogations of the exposed self, we are doing the work. Practicing is the work. We are rehearsing for those out-of-body moments, pen in hand, fingers clamoring on the keys, when we feel our worlds righted and know with certainty we are doing what we are supposed to. We are training to extend ourselves far beyond ourselves, into the deepest depths and then come back to tell.
Claudia Hinz lives in Bend, Oregon. Her essays, fiction, articles and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, International Herald Tribune, 1859 Oregon’s Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bend Lifestyle Magazine, BLUNTMoms and True North Parenting. Her first novel is out on submission. Follow her on Twitter at @ChinzClaudia
June 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?
And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?
That they’ll reach anyone?
…Well there was that one time I—
Yeah, that was a fluke.
Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.
I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.
Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.
And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”
I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.
[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.
Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—
“All the time,” Melanie said.
Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:
“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published—”
“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine—”
“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers—”
“Land that dream agent—”
How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.
If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.
We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.
Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.